Erdrich, Louise: General Commentary
LOUISE ERDRICH: GENERAL COMMENTARY
JULIE THARP (ESSAY DATE 1993)
SOURCE: Tharp, Julie. "Women's Community and Survival in the Novels of Louise Erdrich." In Communication and Women's Friendships: Parallels and Intersections in Literature and Life, edited by Janet Doubler Ward and JoAnna Stephens Mink, pp. 165-80. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.
In the following essay, Tharp explores the effects of Native American cultural corrosion on women's interpersonal relationships in Erdrich's novels.
… The old women sit patiently in a circle, not speaking. Each set of eyes stares sharply into the air or the fire. Occasionally, a sigh is let loose from an open mouth. A Grandmother has a twitch in the corner of her eye. She rubs her nose, then smooths her hair.
The coffee is ready. Cups are brought from a wooden cupboard. Each woman is given the steaming brew. They blow on the swirling liquid, then slurp the drink into hungry mouths. It tastes good. Hot, dark, strong. A little bitter, but that is all to the good.
The women begin talking among themselves. They are together to perform a ceremony. Rituals of old women take time. There is no hurry.
This excerpt from Beth Brant's Mohawk Trail sheds light on the traditional women's community of her Native origins. Within the old traditions of the Longhouse, Brant finds a spirituality grounded within the Grandmothers' gathering to honor life, to honor one another as sources of life and healing. The women speak very little, but smile, laugh and sing, kiss and hug one another during the ritual. They need few words because the significance of their gathering is understood. She ends "Native Origin" with this: "The Grandmothers gather inside the Longhouse. They tend the fire" (17). Female community signifies the life of the people, their survival in spirit as well as in body.
In Mohawk Trail this kind of community seems almost wholly a way of the past; Brant offers only one notable example of contemporary women's friendship, within a lesbian bar in Detroit, Michigan. The women there cling to one another as family because of legal and social difficulties in creating or maintaining other kinds of families. And, indeed, throughout Native American women's literature, the lack of women's gatherings like that depicted in Brant's "Native Origin" is conspicuous. Within the novels of Louise Erdrich, friendships between women are rare, much less formalized or ritualized. In Love Medicine the two powerful grandmothers, Lulu Nanapush Lamartine and Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, are intense rivals throughout most of the novel. In Tracks Pauline and Fleur are divided by their contrasting loyalties to assimilation and tradition. The Beet Queen, alternatively, narrates the friendship between Mary Adare and Celestine James, a friendship that can, however, only exist because of the women's particular circumstances. As Erdrich carefully points out in all of her novels, the circumstances that made life felicitous for her ancestors have been disrupted and distorted in contemporary Native culture. There are clear historical reasons for the shift from the powerful women's groups depicted in Brant's story to the isolated women in Erdrich's novels.
Paula Gunn Allen connects the dispersal and dissolution of women's communal power to the waning of Native power, saying:
… the shift from gynecentric-egalitarian and ritual-based systems to phallocentric, hierarchical systems is not accomplished in only one dimension. As LeJeune understood, the assault on the system of woman power requires the replacing of a peaceful, nonpunitive, nonauthoritarian social system wherein women wield power by making social life easy and gentle with one based on child terrorization, male dominance, and submission of women to male authority.
Allen locates four sites of change in the historical acculturation efforts of the federal government and of early missionaries: a change in religion that replaces female deities like White Buffalo Woman and Grandmother Spider with a male creator; a movement from egalitarian tribal government to hierarchical, male centered government; economic conversion from self-sufficiency to government dependency; and a shift from the clan system to the nuclear family system. The first change alters inner identity, cutting the individual loose from spiritual grounding within a matrifocal system and replacing that with the abstract notions of patriarchal dominance; individuals cease to recognize the "Grandmother powers that uphold and energize the universe" (Allen 203). The movement from tribal to hierarchical government discredits women's political alliances in favor of one representative who needs to be male to interact with the federal government. The spiritual basis for tribal government is erased.
Converting from familial self-sufficiency to wage labor further increases the perceived power of the men, since they frequently earn the money to support the family, while women remain at home with the children. This movement intersects with the breakup of clan units (often matrilocal) and the subsequent isolation within nuclear families which Nancy Bonvillain argues "results in the isolation of women within small households, exacerbated by their husbands' absence from home. Work which previously had been shared between spouses today falls exclusively to women" (11), and, Allen would add, to lone women rather than to groups of women laboring together. Marie Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine and Zelda Kashpaw, for instance, all from Love Medicine, are depicted almost exclusively in their homes, often in their kitchens, husbands absent. Both the nuclear family household and wage labor isolate women from one another.
Acculturation to Anglo-American gender typing seems inevitable within these shifts. Citing both Patricia Albers and Paula Gunn Allen, Rebecca Tsosie argues that traditional Native gender roles were flexible and adaptive: "the ideal relationship between male and female [was] complementary and based on principles of individual autonomy and voluntary sharing. Because of this ethic, Albers claims that the concept of male 'dominance' was meaningless for the traditional Sioux" (Tsosie 5). Molding the man into patriarch, however, and further dividing chores more strictly between men and women, replicates Anglo notions of gender as differential and hierarchical, notions that have, further, bred institutionalized control of women. Allen notes that battered wives and "women who have been raped by Indian men" are no longer rare (Allen 50). Bonvillain's research concurs in this assessment and Erdrich illustrates it in The Beet Queen when Isabel Pillager marries a Sioux and moves to South Dakota:
We hear she has died of beating, or in a car wreck, some way that's violent. But nothing else. We hear nothing from her husband, and if she had any children we never hear from them. Russell goes down there that weekend, but the funeral is long past. He comes home, telling me it's like she fell off the earth. There is no trace of her, no word.
Although Isabel is a powerful woman, niece of Fleur Pillager and foster mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, she too can be swallowed up by domestic violence and utterly forgotten within a culture that once honored strong women. King Kashpaw of Love Medicine beats his wife with astounding regularity, emulating mainstream Anglo notions of male gender, as Nora Barry and Mary Prescott point out in their article on Native American gender identity.
Because of reservation land allotments, women have been and often are geographically distant from one another. Rather than living in closely knit villages with an interdependent network of kin and friends, people live miles apart and gather occasionally. The very struggle to keep land often tore families and friends apart. Erdrich dramatizes this in Tracks when Margaret and Nector Kashpaw use all of the money saved to pay for Fleur Pillager's land allotment to instead pay for their own. Once close friends, Margaret and Fleur are wedged apart over the struggle for newly limited resources.
Within all three of Erdrich's novels heterosexuality either threatens to or does divide women. Pauline's sexual jealousy of Fleur keeps the women wary of one another and creates a vindictive streak within Pauline. Marie and Lulu cannot speak to one another as long as Nector lives. In The Beet Queen Erdrich deconstructs the heterosexual unions that disrupt female community. Neither Mary Adare nor Celestine James fits the stereotypical gender notions formulated within American popular culture and they, therefore, have a difficult time attracting men (not that they seem to care much). Mary at one point considers a relationship with Russell Kashpaw. She invites him to dinner with less than lustrous results:
He looked at me for the first time that night. I'd drawn my eyebrows on for the evening in brown pencil. I'd carefully pinned my braids up and worn a black chiffon scarf to set off my one remarkable feature, yellow cat eyes, which did their best to coax him. But I don't know coaxing from a box lunch.
When Russell lets her know that he would be interested in Sita Kozka (blond, thin and pretty), if anyone, and then later makes a joke of her touching him, Mary concludes: "I was cured, as though a fever had burned off. One thought was clear. I would never go out of my way for romance again. Romance would have to go out of its way for me" (68). Because the experience is humiliating, from that point on Mary concentrates instead on her relationship with Celestine, one which affirms her "as is."
Celestine more obviously deconstructs the romantic ideology that influences both women when Karl Adare seduces her. It is quite possibly Celestine's non-stereotypical female beauty that attracts the bisexual Karl to her in the first place. She is taller than he and stronger; her face is "not pretty" (114). Celestine evaluates the encounter through reference to the romance magazines she has read. (She "never had a mother to tell [her] what came next" .) When Karl gives her a knife demonstration after their love-making, she ponders her expectations: "So, I think, this is what happens after the burning kiss, when the music roars. Imagine. The lovers are trapped together in a deserted mansion. His lips descend. She touches his magnificent thews. 'Cut anything,' he says …" (117). In a capitalist society the lover is ultimately a vendor looking for a quick sale. Karl does leave quickly, but he returns and this time Celestine asks him to leave: "In the love magazines when passion holds sway, men don't fall down and roll on the floor and lay there like dead. But Karl does that" (121). Rather than boldly declaring his love and ravishing Celestine in the true fashion of the male hero, Karl passes out. Celestine's worldly assessment reveals both self-irony for having read the "love magazines" and a cynicism about popular culture versions of reality.
Months later she thinks, "Something in this all has made me realize that Karl has read as many books as I, and that his fantasies have always stopped before the woman came home worn out from cutting beef into steaks with an electric saw" (122). Clearly the reason his fantasies and hers stopped short is because this reality defies the conventions of gender roles and romance. No heroine should be working as a butcher, and no hero should lie around the house all day. Celestine finds that heterosexual love does not live up to its reputation. It makes her feel like a "big, stupid heifer" (123). It is further made unattractive to her because it comes between her and Mary, who "talks around [her], delivers messages through others. I even hear through one of the men that she says I've turned against her" (122). Almost immediately after getting rid of Karl, Celestine calls to tell Mary.
When both women repudiate the expectations of romance and its attendant gender roles, they return with perhaps greater loyalty to their friendship and ultimately to themselves. In an interview with Joseph Bruchac, Erdrich speaks of writing for her daughters and sisters: "I have an urgent reason for thinking about women attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and the embarrassed nature and the nature that says, 'I can't possibly accomplish this'" (Bruchac 82). Neither obstinate, eccentric Mary nor fierce Celestine could be said to give up one ounce of their own power, except in their catering to Dot.
When Celestine gives birth to Dot, the two women find a mutual fixation. Mary continually tries to insinuate herself as a co-parent, although Celestine guards the right to herself. In the baby, Celestine finds a passion "even stronger than with Karl. She stole time to be with Dot as if they were lovers" (157). For Mary, Dot is a small version of herself. The two women quarrel over parenting issues, even behave as jealous rivals, but ultimately act as co-parents to the child. They create a family. Toward the end of the novel when they are both aging, they behave like an old married couple, sleeping together at Sita's house, conspiring together, griping at each other and even reading each other's thoughts.
The two women can also be close to one another because of their economic self-sufficiency. Mary owns and runs the "House of Meats" and Celestine works there, enabling them to set their own timetables and living arrangements. They need not depend on men for money. Instead they hire men. They also work very hard, however, perhaps resembling Celestine's grandmothers in their butchering of animals and preparation of foods. The infant Dot is propped in a shopping cart instead of a cradleboard. Their work literally feeds the community.
Their kinship network, while geographically apart, is interdependent—Sita Kozka, Russell Kashpaw, Wallace Pfeff, Karl Adare, Mary, Celestine and Dot all comprise a clan of sorts that is notable in its tenuous connection to larger communities like the town of Argus or Turtle Mountain Reservation. Karl—a drifter—has no family whatsoever beyond this group. Sita would like to claim the beau monde of the Midwest (if that's not oxymoronic), as her community, but even a Minneapolis department store clerk snubs her. Wallace, entrepreneurial spirit of Argus, is marginalized by his sexuality. His bogus deceased fiancee is a secret that forever thwarts genuine interaction with the other townspeople. Russell, though canonized by the local museum for his war exploits, would not be welcome within one of the local families. He only returns to the reservation permanently as an invalid. These characters cannot or will not conform to community expectations of gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Within this marginalized group, the two female parents and their child form a core, a familial center from which to grow. Their dual mothering is attractive to the many characters who lack a mother themselves. The lone child of the many adults is their "dot" of hope for the future.
Erdrich, in the interview with Bruchac, poses a question shortly after her comment about women's power that provides a useful entry into this dilemma and that has everything to do with women's community within her three novels. She says, "There's a quest for one's own background in a lot of this work … All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from" (83). Although Erdrich does not specify here, background almost inevitably signifies "mother" for her characters. While many characters of Love Medicine and Tracks have lost their mothers through hardship or acculturation (I will say more on this later), the mothers of The Beet Queen are denied or renounced.
Both Karl and Mary renounce their mother for having left them stranded at the fairgrounds. Mary goes so far as to send word to her mother that her children starved to death. For Mary this solution seems plausible since she so readily plants herself within the new home in Argus. Karl, however, becomes completely unbalanced, helplessly relying upon any woman who will mother him as Fleur does when she finds him on the side of the railroad track and as Celestine does when she takes him in. He has no roots, only the branch he tears off the tree in Argus. Sita too renounces her own mother, identifying instead with her elusive aunt.
Mary and Celestine in fact first cement their friendship around their lack of parents. Asked about her mother and father, Mary responds, "They're dead," and Celestine answers, "Mine are dead too" (30). Sita observes that suddenly the two girls seemed very much alike, with "a common sort of fierceness" (30). The fierceness would seem to arise out of their motherless status. Forced to rely upon themselves, they develop an aggressive edge. In a sense, the two are grounded in their lack of a mother, perhaps the only coping strategy available to them and certainly better than Karl's strategy. Nonetheless, the ruling element of the novel is air, suggesting just how disconnected these characters are. Paula Gunn Allen develops the concept of grounding:
Among the Keres, "context" and "matrix" are equivalent terms, and both refer to approximately the same thing as knowing your derivation and place. Failure to know your mother, that is, your position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the scheme of things, is failure to remember your significance, your reality, your right relationship to earth and society. It is the same as being lost … not confined to Keres Indians; all American Indian Nations place great value on traditionalism.
Failure to know one's actual mother within Erdrich's novels is a metaphor for failure to grasp one's own significance within tribal traditions, within history. For women in particular, who lose all status within Anglo patriarchal traditions, it is a failure to embrace your own power. Celestine and Mary do not simply deny their mothers, however; they also create themselves in their own images of mother. Because Celestine did not know her mother well enough to carry on her traditions, and actually finds that her mother's heterosexual lifestyle does not suit her in any event, she becomes the mother she wanted. Mary rejects her distant self-centered mother and becomes an overprotective, indulgent mother. Both women are creating, from scratch, a family that can survive the harshness and sterility of Argus, North Dakota. Nevertheless, their lack of a women's tradition, of clan wisdom, leads to many mistakes in their mothering as Wallace Pfeff points out and as Celestine surmises.
In an article entitled "Adoptive Mothers and Thrown-Away Children in the Novels of Louise Erdrich," Hertha D. Wong describes in great detail the manner in which Erdrich develops complex mother/child relationships to dramatize the destruction of traditional family identities and the present need for maternal nurturance. That nurturance would not have been provided only by women in the past but rather by the entire tribe. Wong concludes that:
Erdrich's novels, then, transcend easy categories of gender and ethnicity, reflect both Native American and Euroamerican influences, and extend Western notions of mothering. Mothering can indeed be a painful process of separation; it might be the necessarily insufficient dispensation of grace. But mothering can also be a communal responsibility for creating and maintaining personal identity.
Whatever Celestine and Mary's faults, they maintain Dot's identity, try to mother Sita and create a familial context for the men in their kinship network, men who are otherwise isolated. They take on the responsibility of mothering that the other characters either ignored or lost. Without each other, however, it is doubtful if the two women could even sustain that.
As Wong points out, Nanapush, in Tracks, is a nurturing figure in the tribal tradition of communal parenting, but his nurturing is put to harsh tests when he loses his entire family one by one, his land and ultimately his way of life. Although both lyrical novels, Tracks and Love Medicine are firmly situated within historical events. Julie Maristuen-Rodakowski confirms the historical accuracy of Erdrich's depiction of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota and their rapid assimilation to American culture. Maristuen-Rodakowski notes in particular the strong bicultural nature of this reservation, bred as it is from both Ojibwa and French trapper/traders. She also maps out a genealogical chart of the characters, illustrating how central family is within these works, that the reader should even be capable of drawing a detailed chart, and suggesting that such a chart is necessary for comprehension of the families' complex interrelationships (Wong's article contains a less detailed genealogical chart). The almost obsessive concern with family origins within Love Medicine and Tracks seems in part to arise from the characterization and status accorded to each family—largely the Kashpaws, Nanapushes and Pillagers on the clearly Chippewa side and the Lamartines, Lazarres and Morrisseys on the more French, mixed blood side, the latter holding far less worth in most characters' eyes.1
Another factor in this obsession is the mystery surrounding the parentage of many characters. Pauline, for example, hides her identity as Marie's mother after her liaisons with Napoleon Morissey result in the child's birth. Fleur is raped by three men, so literally does not know which man fathered Lulu. The destruction of Fleur's family leaves her orphaned; the removal of Lulu to a government boarding school divides her from her mother; because of Pauline's entrance into the Catholic order she leaves Marie with Sophie Lazarre. In The Beet Queen Adelaide Adare hides her children's father's identity until his death. For her, sexual license is not so much a choice made out of desire but rather one made out of economic necessity; her economic desperation leads to her abandonment of the children. Throughout all three novels families are both created and torn apart by economic, spiritual and social upheaval. Those same changes separate the women, who, together, could and eventually do resist their force.
The mothers of the two families most extensively portrayed within Love Medicine both obscure origin in their own ways, I would argue, because their own origins are problematic for them. Marie Lazarre Kashpaw raises, in addition to her own children, many stray and orphaned babies on the reservation, June Morrissey and Lipsha Morrissey to name two; to Lipsha she says only that his mother would have "drowned him in the slough" if she had not taken him in, a patent falsehood, as he learns later in the novel. Lulu Nanapush gives birth to eight sons and one daughter, all of different fathers and none fathered by the man she was married to the longest and whose name several bear. Both women redefine notions of the nuclear family. Marie's elastic household forms a kind of clan unit. In Lulu's many partners lies a deconstruction of the patriarchal family and Christian monogamy.
Nora Barry and Mary Prescott, in discussing the holistic vision of gender in Love Medicine, imply that Marie and Lulu act as facilitators to that holistic vision, Marie because she is "a blending of two complementary gender based traditions. Her life includes risk, transformation, householding, and medicine, as well as an integration of past and present" (127). Speaking of Lulu, they write that she is "a worthy adversary because she is as effective at complementarity as Marie is. The two characters mirror one another in their role as mother, in their ability to take risks, in their way of blending past and present, and in their wielding of power in old age" (129). Clearly it is because they resist gender bifurcation and emulate gender complementarity that they can become powerful in their old age, speaking as Grandmothers of their clans. Still, while separate, they are unable to create an empowering matrix for these children.
In the role of Grandmother they are able to mediate various Anglo institutions. Marie rejects the "deadliness of the convent" in favor of life (Barry 128) and Lulu remains mindful of the "conflict between old values and the influences of the white standard of economic success" (129). One mother serves as a mediator between her people and white religious ideology, answering a call to the convent and just as quickly rejecting it when she confronts the violence of Sister Leopolda. The other mother mediates commodity culture, calling the "tomahawk" factory proposed to be built on the site of her house "dreamstuff."
Marie and Lulu also unite the two family groupings—Chippewa and French—the historical discord between which has eased Anglo appropriation of land. Marie seeks to deny the French/Catholic side and embrace traditional Native culture. Even so, her healing powers are associated with Catholicism. She is truly a sister of mercy in caring for orphaned children and in attending to Lulu. Even though that power is not exclusive of Native identity by any means, here it carries Catholic overtones. Lulu seeks to deny her Native/traditionalist mother and ignore her Nanapush/father's teachings and marries the French Lamartine. Ironically she is only a good Catholic in her fecundity. The fact that her boys all have different fathers reveals her innate attachment to her rebellious mother.
These two women, however, who have so much in common and could become powerful allies, can only come together after Nector dies, suggesting that heterosexuality as it has been influenced by Anglo culture takes priority over women's community and therefore divides women and dissipates tribal strength.2 Once the women have become fast friends Lipsha reports to Gerry Nanapush that Lulu had "started running things along with Grandma Kashpaw. I told him how she'd even testified for Chippewa claims and that people were starting to talk, now, about her knowledge as an old-time traditional" (268). Women's friendship here signifies tradition and resistance to acculturation, but Lulu and Marie's friendship also reunites the characters with their own pasts, with their mothers, ultimately with their tribal past.
Tracks takes up the subject of displaced origins from early in the novel when Fleur conceives Lulu. The complexity is well expressed in Nanapush's decision to give Fleur Pillager's daughter his and his deceased daughter's names, not knowing what to tell Father Damien since the father was unknown:
There were so many tales, so many possibilities, so many lies. The waters were so muddy I thought I'd give them another stir. "Nanapush," I said. "And her name is Lulu."
The muddy waters originate with speculation, particularly about Fleur's relationship to the water monster in Lake Matchimanito. Like her mother, Lulu is stigmatized for her unconventional sexuality, but they both see through the hypocrisy of others. When the townspeople jeer Lulu at a town meeting, she offers to enlighten everyone as to the fathers of her children, an offer the people decline.
Lulu's "wild and secret ways" are an obvious legacy from her mother Fleur Pillager, one of the last two surviving Pillagers, a wild and powerful family living far back in the bush. The Pillagers know the ways to "cure and kill." Lulu rejects her mother—Nanapush's narrative is in part his attempt to explain Fleur's actions to Lulu—but in fact Lulu greatly resembles her mother in her ability to stand up to the current notions of "progress" and in her steadfast defense of erotic integrity in the face of community opposition. That Lulu should come to be in her old age a bearer of the old traditions marks at least a symbolic reconciliation with her mother.
The young mixed-blood Pauline Puyat, who seeks to punish her body in any way imaginable in the effort to drive out the devil, also seeks sexual experience before becoming a nun. Her rendezvous with Napoleon Morrissey results in an unwanted pregnancy. Pauline's efforts to keep the child from being born in order to kill both her and the infant force the midwife, Bernadette, to tie Pauline down and remove the baby with iron spoons used as forceps. The dual surprise of the novel is that Pauline becomes, at the end of the novel, Sister Leopolda; and the girl she gives birth to and names Marie is eventually raised by the soft-witted Sophie Lazarre. Rather than the offspring of a "drunken woman" and a "dirty Lazarre," Marie is the child of Pauline and Napoleon Morrissey. Marie obviously has no clue to Sister Leopolda's identity in Love Medicine, but Leopolda recognizes Marie at least up to the end of Tracks. Marie and Sister Leopolda's mutual obsession, which leads to Leopolda's sponsoring Marie at the convent, is ostensibly religious and caring. That Leopolda should lock Marie in closets, scald her with hot water, brain her with an iron pole and skewer her hand with a meat fork suggests that, like Lulu, Marie has a difficult relationship with her mother. In retaliation for the scalding, Marie attempts to push Leopolda into a huge oven. Nonetheless, from her experience with Sister Leopolda, Marie learns pity, a gift that enables her to help her husband back to her side and that leads her to reconcile with Lulu. (Marie's compulsion to visit the dying nun many years later ironically leads to a battle over the iron spoon that Leopolda habitually bangs on her metal bedstead.)
Lulu's mother is deeply harmed in obviously material ways by Anglo encroachment—her parents and siblings are decimated by disease, her land is lost and her forest leveled, she and her family are starved, killing her second child. Still Fleur Pillager maintains her will to fight, crushing the wagons of the loggers when they come to throw her off her land. To keep Lulu safe from these circumstances Fleur has sent her to a boarding school, an act for which Lulu cannot forgive Fleur. Pauline/Leopolda is deeply harmed in more obviously psychological ways. An odd person from the outset, Pauline desires to move with the times, assimilating rather than "living in the old ways" as Fleur does. One critic describes Pauline as a trickster figure, but Nanapush, himself a trickster, confesses to being completely baffled by the girl. In several places Erdrich seems to suggest that it is Pauline's unattractiveness that drives her outside of the community. She cannot marry and so must find an occupation. In a community that has accepted Anglo definitions of use, value and gender roles, a woman like Pauline can find no recourse.
Marie and Lulu's friendship closes the circle as the daughters of Pauline—who rejects mothering from a distorted allegiance to Anglo culture—and Fleur—who gives up mothering the child upon whom she dotes in order to fight for Native culture—come together in the effort to nurture one another. In putting "the tears in [Lulu's] eyes," Marie helps Lulu to finally feel pity for her mother. Together the women have reconciled their own and their mothers' dilemmas, Marie by taking the good from Leopolda's venom and Lulu by claiming her mother's protective spirit. In that relationship lies the potential for community transformation that Lipsha notes. Wong writes, "It remains for those left behind, the adoptive mothers and thrown-away youngsters, to reweave the broken strands of family, totem, and community into a harmonious wholeness" (191).
The reconciliation takes place when Marie volunteers to help Lulu recover from cataract surgery. In the scene there is little dialogue and long periods in which the two women simply drink coffee and listen to music on the radio. Lulu thinks that "Too much might start the floodgates flowing and our moment would be lost. It was enough just to sit there without words" (236). The women understand that with a gulf as wide as the one they must cross, words will only divide them further. The benign music on the radio, the "music" of Marie's voice, and the soft touch of her hand provide the healing communication necessary to their alliance.
For Lulu this meeting provides a revelation: "For the first time I saw exactly how another woman felt, and it gave me deep comfort, surprising. It gave me the knowledge that whatever had happened the night before, and in the past, would finally be over once my bandages came off" (236). Marie indeed helps Lulu to "get [her] vision" as Lipsha testifies in the next chapter (235): "Insight. It was as though Lulu knew by looking at you what was the true bare-bones elements of your life. It wasn't like that before she had the operation on her eyes, but once the bandages came off she saw. She saw too clear for comfort" (241). Having seen "how another woman felt" Lulu is now capable of seeing into everyone; she is given a "near-divine" power of vision. Through imagery, however, Erdrich reveals that this connection is not simply one of friendship. Lulu imagines Marie, caring for her eyes, swaying "down like a dim mountain, huge and blurred, the way a mother must look to her just born child" (236).
In its coffee, contemplation and vision-seeking, this scene resembles the old women's ritual described at the outset and also depicted within Linda Hogan's short story "Meeting" about a contemporary women's ceremony:
Mom was boiling coffee on the fire and serving it up. The women sipped it and warmed their palms over the fire. They were quiet but the lines of their faces spoke in the firelight, telling about stars that fell at night, the horses that died in the drought of 1930, and the pure and holy terror of gunshots fired into our houses.… Exhaustion had covered up all the mystery and beauty the women held inside.… I met myself that night and I walked in myself. I heard my own blood. I learned all secrets lie beneath even the straggliest of hair, and that in the long run of things dry skin and stiff backs don't mean as much as we give them credit for.
In the meeting between Marie and Lulu rest the seeds for a return to powerful female political alliances, for necessary friendship that will signify not just caring, but survival, and not just survival, but prosperity. Significantly, it is in the nursing home, a communal dwelling place that ends the women's previous geographical isolation, that Marie and Lulu come together. Neither is their friendship strained, however, by familial or spousal demands.
Clearly the community can never again be what it was previous to the events of Tracks, but its very survival is at stake with the outside forces of capitalism and Anglo-American social, governmental and religious systems tearing at its fabric. That survival cannot take place without some kind of cohesive resistance. Since the traditionalist male figures—Old Man Pillager and Eli Kashpaw—have retreated into the bush and silence, it is left to the women in the novels to somehow save the children. Even though for some of those children the mothers may only be a shadowy presence, Lulu's sons idolize her and Marie's clan quickly materializes en masse for family gatherings. The two women's mutual grandson, Lipsha, as an old people's child and a caregiver to the old ones on the reservation, holds forth promise for a more powerful male presence. Although the desperation of some Turtle Mountain Reservation characters depicted in Tracks and Love Medicine may seem greater than of those characters living in Argus, the reservation also offers a portal to empowering traditions. Argus counts communal and personal strength only in dollar amounts.
Allen writes that in response to the "inhuman changes" wrought by Anglo colonization Indian women are trying to "reclaim their lives. Their power, their sense of direction and of self will soon be visible. It is the force of women who speak and work and write, and it is formidable" (50). Female friendship enables the women in Erdrich's novels to recreate an empowering matrix that was frequently lost or disrupted through colonization and acculturation. In turn the women are strengthened in their capacity to act as leaders for ensuing generations.
- Robert Silberman reads Love Medicine as largely a meditation on home, beginning as it does with June going "home" in a fatal blizzard. He writes: "Clearly, home in Love Medicine is an embattled concept, as ambiguous as June Kashpaw's motives in attempting her return" (108). The characters' loss of a satisfying home, while always functioning on a personal and familial level, surely carries echoes of their literal loss of homeland.
- Carolyn Neithammer argues that sexual jealously in traditional Ojibwa communities could be intense: "Great shame was felt by any Ojibwa woman whose husband took another wife, and her wounded self-esteem was only aggravated by the talk of the rest of the villagers, who openly speculated on just what qualities the woman lacked that forced her husband to take another wife" (94). This underscores Marie's forgiveness of Nector and Lulu. The other community members, however, side with Marie and brand Lulu a Jezebel, calling her "the Lamartine." The aspersion may reflect French Catholic ideology.
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Barry, Nora, and Mary Prescott. "The Triumph of the Brave: Love Medicine's Holistic Vision." Critique 30.2 (1989).
Bonvillain, Nancy. "Gender Relations in Native North America." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 13.2 (1989).
Brant, Beth. Mohawk Trail. New York: Firebrand Books, 1985.
Bruchac, Joseph. "Whatever is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich." Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York: Harper, 1988.
——. The Beet Queen. 1986. Rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
——. Love Medicine. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
Hogan, Linda. "Meeting." The Stories We Hold Secret. Eds. Carol Bruchac, Linda Hogan and Judith McDaniel. New York: Greenfield Review P, 1986.
Maristuen-Rodakowski, Julie. "The Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota: Its History as Depicted in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and The Beet Queen." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 12.3 (1988).
Neithammer, Carolyn. Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
Silberman, Robert. "Opening the Text: Love Medicine and the Return of the Native American Woman." Narrative Chance. Ed. Gerald Vizenor. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989.
Tsosie, Rebecca. "Changing Women: The Cross-Currents of American Indian Feminine Identity." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 12.1 (1988).
Wong, Hertha D. "Adoptive Mothers and Thrown-Away Children in the Novels of Louise Erdrich." Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities. Eds. Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991.
ANNETTE VAN DYKE (ESSAY DATE 1999)
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