Analysis Of Selected Stories In Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine

Though most of author Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine takes place on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, the setting also reflects an over 50-year span of changes - a mix of old and new experiences. Love Medicine encompasses the lives of numerous major characters, many of whom take turns narrating their own stories within the novel. Specifically, the stories ‘A Bridge’, ‘The Red Convertible’, and ‘Scales’ utilize the setting as an important driving force for plot and character development. Additionally, the setting reflects upon the author’s own experiences as a Chippewa. In both ‘A Bridge’ and ‘The Red Convertible,’ Henry Junior’s experience during the Vietnam War is what causes the major shift in his characterization when he returns, which furthers the story as a whole. This is a very important idea, as the story is narrated in 1974, while the Vietnam War was still going on. 

In ‘Scales’, Gerry has undergone some evident psychological damage due to being in and out of jail - which comes down to an encounter with a cowboy that was also very time-specific. Both Gerry and Henry are interesting characters that are affected greatly by the time period their stories are set in, and both inadvertently affect the people around them - including Lyman and Albertine. Each independent story of Love Medicine has a sharp focus and a clear narrative line that reaches some resolution. The layers of understanding created by this linked-story technique is made possible by Erdrich’s incorporating the setting.

The stories ‘A Bridge’ and ‘The Red Convertible’ are a few examples of Erdrich’s extensive writing about the younger generation of her characters, specifically Albertine and Henry Jr. In ‘A Bridge’, her depiction of Albertine Johnson is particularly intriguing. Albertine represents the modern Chippewa woman faced with an undefined life whose shape she must determine. Both Albertine and Henry are younger characters who are facing challenges - probably representative of the author’s own development while growing up near her grandparents’ reservation. A passage from ‘A Bridge’ states, “And he saw her as the woman back there … The Asian, folded eyes of some Chippewas. She was hemorrhaging.” In the final altercation between these two characters, Henry wakes up in a panic after remembering this bayoneted woman in Vietnam and eventually weeps in front of Albertine. Not only does this tragic scene foreshadow a future psychologically-damaged Henry in the next chapter, but it alludes to the complexity of Chippewa relationships as well as the tensions they feel experiencing trauma and despair.

In ‘The Red Convertible’, the red car is a symbol for Henry’s own mental state that undergoes changes throughout the course of the story. His own experiences in the army serve to further illuminate his character, building off of the previous chapter; the reader learns that Henry was once a happy, joking brother who was close to his family. When Henry returns home, according to Lyman, he “was very different, and … the change was no good.” This new, sheltered Henry has been sculpted by his traumatizing experience in Vietnam, which has left him with PTSD-like symptoms. The red convertible fails to be a source of enthusiasm for Henry, unlike before when it served as a symbol of the brotherly bond between him and Lyman. In both this chapter and ‘A Bridge’, Erdrich manipulates time and setting to present various facets of her characters in different situations. As each new time period is introduced, the actual depth of Henry’s suffering is more apparent. Overall, this story is more family-oriented compared to others, with themes that seem to reflect Erdrich’s own background from a large family with several brothers and sisters. 

Erdrich chooses to delve into the history of the timely Vietnam War and its clear negative impacts on both a young Native American man who serves in the war and his sibling. In this way, she infuses her own background and familiarity of Native American oral tradition into ‘The Red Convertible’ through the character development of Henry. Though relatively light-hearted in comparison to the other stories, ‘Scales’ is also a tale that is representative of the cultural exploitation that was actually prominent during this time. An excerpt from this passage states, “He also found that white people are good witnesses to have on your side, because they have names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and work phones. But they are terrible witnesses to have against you, almost as bad as having Indians witness for you.” Such details reveal that Gerry’s background as a Native American negatively affects him throughout the passage; it shows how difficult it Gerry for him to deal with a racially skewed justice system and limited opportunities. Thus, it is evident that Gerry has been damaged by his wrongful encounters with the justice system. This becomes even more apparent as he is anxious and sweaty in the hospital, which reminds him of a prison, and shows the psychological damage that years of incarceration have now inflicted upon him. Erdrich concludes this passage on a negative note by having Gerry ultimately sent to a high-security prison. It is implied that he and Dot will have to talk separated by a glass screen and that his daughter may grow up without ever getting to know him. Interestingly, Erdrich conveys that the justice system in which Gerry has continuously rebelled against is - in truth - vicious and merciless. Albertine’s satirical humor as she narrates ‘Scales’ provides a unique insight into Gerry's mental state. The passage is an example of Erdrich’s alternating between passages of romance, drama, and the 1980’s “dirty realism” trend. She incorporates this by narrating themes of poverty, incarceration, and alcoholism that were prevalent amongst Native Americans during this time. 

Though the novel itself follows a loose chronology, Love Medicine encompasses a series of stories in which a sense of place is very strong. This is shown through the importance of the setting in passages such as ‘The Red Convertible’, ‘A Bridge’, and ‘Scales’. The setting reveals the background of the Vietnam War, which heavily impacts the development of youthful characters such as Albertine, Henry Jr, and Lyman. Henry Junior’s drastic character development is revealed through his experiences in the war in both ‘A Bridge’ and ‘The Red Convertible’, and his trauma is the exact cause in his personality shift. This drives the story in a devastating yet almost realistic direction. In ‘Scales’, Gerry’s own mental state is damaged due to his altercations with a racially skewed justice system and very limited opportunities as a Native American. Author Louise Erdrich’s skillfully incorporates her Chippewa background into these passages to both weave the complex relationships between her characters and convey stories that also follow her own Native American oral traditions. 

16 August 2021
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