Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) (b. 1954)
Contributing Editor: Andrew O. Wiget
Classroom Issues and Strategies
One problem in teaching Love Medicine is the intensity of religious experience, which many students in today's secular society may have difficulty relating to. Another is the surrealistic imagery that Marie Lazarre uses in describing her relationship with Sister Leopolda. And yet a third is understanding the historical and cultural context of reservation life at this period of time in the 1930s.
In terms of the historical and cultural context, I would point out to students that Indian reservations in the 1930s were notorious for their poverty, their high mortality rate, their chronic unemployment, and the destruction of the fabric of Native American social and cultural forms. One of the principal policies of the United States government was to transform Native Americans into carbon copies of Anglo-Americans, and one of the principal ways that they hoped to accomplish this, ever since the Grant administration in the 1870s, was through religion.
During the 1870s, the Native American communities were allocated among the various major Christian sects, and missionary activity was understood to be an agent of social and cultural transformation. The objective was to get rid of the Indian while saving the man. Culture was imagined as a number of practices and behaviors and customs, which--if they could be changed--would eliminate all the historic obstacles to the Indians' participation in Anglo-American culture. Of course, if they were eliminated, so would the Indian nest be eliminated. Religion then is hardly a simple spiritual force, but an agent of the interests of the Euro-American majority. Such an understanding, I think, should help students appreciate the intensity with which Marie and Sister Leopolda enter their confrontation.
A fine introduction to this story would be to spend a good deal of time focusing on the first paragraph, trying to understand the tone of the narrator and also the structure of her vision of herself, which she repeats later in the story. I would use the imagery and the tone as a way of developing the narrator's sense of herself, and I would try to account for her intense antagonism to the "black robe women on the hill."
Most students are puzzled by the intensity of the antagonism, and they have real questions as to whether or not Marie or Leopolda or both are crazy. Students tend to think that they're crazy because of the surrealistic imagery and because of the intensity of the emotion, which strikes most of them as excessive. Students need to realize that religion, especially when it is the lens through which other issues are magnified, can become the focus of such intense feelings, and that when one's feelings are so intense, they frequently compel the creation of surrealistic imagery as the only means to adequately shape what one sees.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
I think that there are two major themes that could be addressed in this story. The first is to understand religion, as described in the previous question, as a field upon which two different sets of interests contest their right to define the terms by which people will understand themselves and others. For all the black comedy in this story, the battle that Leopolda fights with the Dark One over the soul of Marie Lazarre is understood by both Leopolda and Marie as a very real battle. Leopolda represents a set of values, and so does the Dark One. Marie is understood as struggling to choose between the values of the Dark One and the values of Sister Leopolda, and these values are cultural as well as spiritual, for it is precisely the Indian character of Marie--her pride, her resistance to change, her imagination--that Leopolda identifies with the Dark One.
A second theme is to view the formation of identity in bicultural environments as an enriching, rather than an impoverishing, experience. Too often in bicultural situations, Indian protagonists are represented as being helpless, suspended in their inability to make a decision between two sets of values offered to them. The John Joseph Mathews novel Sundown is an example. In this story, however, Marie Lazarre chooses, and she chooses to identify herself as an Indian over and against the black robe sisters precisely by turning their own naiveté against them. The "veils of faith" that she refers to early in this story not only prevent the sisters from seeing the truth, but they also obscure their faith from shining forth, like the Reverend Mr. Hooper's veil in Hawthorne's story "The Minister's Black Veil."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This story succeeds principally as a study of characterization. I would ask students to pay special attention to matters of tone and point of view. Since this story is told in the first person, I would ask them, on the basis of what they have read, to form an opinion of Marie Lazarre and, secondly, to develop some sense of her judgment of Sister Leopolda. I would ask them to look especially at the imagery and the language that Marie uses to describe her encounters with Leopolda and to describe herself, as the basis for their opinions.
The audience for whom this story is written is contemporary, but differs from the students we meet in university settings by perhaps being older and therefore more familiar with a traditional religiosity. Students who are not Catholic may need to know something about Catholicism, especially the role of nuns, and the historic role of missionaries in relationship to Indian communities. Other explicitly Catholic references, such as to the stigmata, are explained by their context in the story.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
This story can be usefully contrasted with some of Flannery O'Connor's stories, which focus on the discovery of real faith, especially from a Catholic perspective. The emphasis on surrealistic imagery provides interesting connections with poems like those of Adrienne Rich; since this is a retrospective narrative, one might usefully compare this probing of a formative event from the narrator's past with Rich's poem "Diving into the Wreck." Insofar as this offers us a sensitive and imaginative teenage minority narrator, the story invites comparisons with the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. In Native American terms, useful comparisons would be to Gertrude Bonnin's "Why I Am a Pagan," as well as John Oskison's "The Problem of Old Harjo."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I've never used questions ahead of time for this particular story, though if I did, I think they would be addressed to issues of characterization and tone.
2. An interesting assignment, because this story is told from Marie's point of view, is to retell the encounter between Marie and Sister Leopolda from Sister Leopolda's perspective. This would require students to formulate characterizations of Leopolda and of Marie, which would be useful touchstones for evaluating their comprehension of the issues on which the conflict in this story rests.
Erdrich, Louise. "Whatever Is Really Yours: An Interview with Louise Erdrich." Survival This Way: An Interview with American Indian Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1987, 73-86.
Wiget, Andrew. "Singing the Indian Blues: Louise Erdrich and the Love that Hurts So Good." Puerto del Sol 21.2 (1986): 166-75