Erdrich's descriptions of the setting pretty much embody the whole tone of the book: a lot of bleakness with a few flashes of nice stuff. In the Albertine's description of the Kashpaw family home, for example, we get a sense of a place (and a family) in the throes of decay, drawing our attention to a rusted car that had served as a playhouse for the family's kids for multiple generations, and the fact that "the stones that lined the driveway, always painted white or blue, were flaking back to gray."
Yikes. Check out our discussion of "Setting" for more on that jazz.
So, we've gotta be honest—overall, the book is a pretty depressing ride, with lots of pain, bad family relationships, alcoholism, and financial hardship.
That said, there are a few bright spots. Despite her tussles with her mother, Albertine seems to be headed toward a successful medical career (she starts out as a nurse, but Lipsha later tells us she wants to be a doctor), and Lipsha seems to be in a much more positive and hopeful place at the end of the novel, having come to terms with his parentage and even chatted with his father. So, much to our surprise given the bleakity-bleak-bleak events that preceded it, we actually get a happy ending.
The story is all about the Kashpaw family and its various friends and foes, so it's not hard to tag Love Medicine as a family drama. Obviously, the political and cultural backdrop is pretty important to understanding the characters' historical circumstances, but really it's the family relationships (whether known or part of the family treasure trove of secrets and scandals) that drive the drama.
Albertine sets us nicely for understanding the book through the lens of family when she tells us about her relationship with her mother. These details, which come very early in the novel clue us into the fact that family conflicts are going to be really important. Reading about patient abuse in her nursing textbooks, Albertine finds a counterpart in her mama problems:
"Patient Abuse." There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief. (1.2.2)
Although some of these "abuses" among the Kashpaws never boil to the surface enough to be explicitly discussed, these dips into the minds of our first-person narrators show us the whole host of feelings and memories that are playing into family dynamics and shaping their conditions.
Does this novel involve family? Heck yes. Does this family stir up some serious drama? Double heck yes. Voila! A family drama is born.
Seriously, though, even though we're not talking about witches and Harry Potter-style wizardry here, the phrase definitely implies some kind of magic. The first time the phrase comes up in the book is when Lulu remembers asking her Uncle Nanapush how he managed to drive Rushes Bear so wild for him (romantically, that is), even though she was always annoyed at him:
"What's your love medicine?" I asked Nanapush that evening, after I was allowed back inside. Rushes Bear had walked off, slower and more thoughtful as she moved down the hill, merely brushing the leaves out of her way. "She hates you but you drive her crazy." (4.1.13)
The implication seems to be that Nanapush had put some kind of spell over his wife to make her sleep with him despite hating him. Nanapush, however, denied the charge—he just chalked it up to his willingness to put a lot of time into lovemaking.
The phrase then comes up again later when Lipsha Morrissey is talking about his special powers, i.e., his "touch." His grandmother asked him to use his powers to work some "love medicine" on Nector, who seemed unable to resist chasing after Lulu Lamartine even though his memory was going in and out. Unfortunately, Nector choked during Lipsha's attempts to administer this "medicine"…
So, fine, we've listed all the big references to that titular phrase, but what does it all mean? Well, as we know from all the family drama—including all the extramarital affairs and their resulting children—love is really complex animal in this novel. Sometimes it creates big fat messes (as with Nector and Lulu), and other times it patches things up—like, for example, when Lipsha finally meets and connects with his father, and he suddenly seems somehow a lot more whole and peaceful than he has throughout the entire rest of the novel.
Bottom line: Love is a super mysterious thing with super mysterious powers for good and evil. Even if there's no such thing as a magical "love medicine," love is kind of a wondrous and potent thing just on its own for our characters… and that's pretty magic.
Despite the overall bleak tone of the book overall, the ending is actually kinda-sorta happy: Lipsha has just bonded with his Daddy and come to terms with his parentage (after spending most of the book super angry at having been abandoned), and he's getting ready for a pleasant drive home in "June's" car:
I still had Grandma's hankie in my pocket. The sun flared. I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home. (16.4.55)
Lipsha seems pretty jazzed to have the car (and not just because of the convenience of having transportation). King had purchased the car with the insurance he got from June's death, and so people sometimes refer to it as June's car. Now that Lipsha knows that he's June's son as well, it's probably a nice warm and fuzzy feeling to have "her" car.
Speaking of "her," by the way, that final line is a bit ambiguous. Ostensibly he's talking about the car itself, but it's entirely possible he's kind of thinking of the "her" whose money bought the car—and who died on her way home at the very beginning of the book while trying to walk on water—might somehow, symbolically, finally actually be crossing the water coming home.
After all, as we've already discussed elsewhere, June has totally been a Christ figure in this novel, and so it's really kind of like this moment is her resurrection—even if she's not literally alive, the fact that Lipsha finally feels a connection with her is what actually makes her present enough to get home.
The less-than-postcard-perfect setting kind of mirrors the themes and situations going on in the novel, putting some flashes of beauty and happy times amidst a sea of sadness. When Albertine looks out over the landscape on her ride back from school to the reservation where most of the action takes place, for example, she sees plenty of beauty, but there's also a dullness and depression about what she sees as well:
All along the highway that early summer the land was beautiful. The sky stretched bare. Tattered silver windbreaks bounded flat, plowed fields that the government had paid to lie fallow. Everything else was dull tan—the dry ditches, the dying crops, the buildings of farms and towns. Rain would come just in time that year. Driving north, I could see the earth lifting. The wind was hot and smelled of tar and the moving dust. (1.2.17)
Yeah, we're not talking about a vibrant, flowery scene here—it's pretty, but it's also dry and smelly.
When Albertine arrives at the family house and has to reacquaint her elderly grandfather with the place, the scene there strikes that same balance. Albertine clearly has a lot of warm and fuzzies for the place, but you also get the picture that it's not in super great shape because her aunt, Aurelia, isn't really able to keep up with all the yard work:
Whenever he came out to the home place now, Grandpa had to get reacquainted with the yard of stunted oaks, marigold beds, the rusted car that had been his children's playhouse and mine, the few hills of potatoes and stalks of rhubarb that Aurelia still grew. She worked nights, managing a bar, and couldn't keep the place as nicely as Grandpa always had. Walking him slowly across the lawn, I sidestepped prickers. The hollyhocks were choked with pigweed, and the stones that lined the driveway, always painted white or blue, were flaking back to gray. So was the flat boulder under the clothesline—once my favorite cool place to sit doing nothing while the clothes dried, hiding me. (1.2.72)
So, again, there's still lots of beauty (and there are definitely some great memories), but you also get the sense of decay and depression in the flaking paint and the overgrown yard.
In case you don't believe Albertine on her own, check out Marie's reflections on her surroundings while she was doing her tour with the crazypants nun. Although people often thought the convent was a pretty place, Marie "saw the homelier side," including the "cracked whitewash and swallows nesting in the busted ends of eaves" and "the boards sawed the size of broken windowpanes and the fruit trees, stripped" (2.1.6).
She even kind of thinks of the convent—and the area that surrounded it—as "the end of the world for some. Where the maps stopped. Where God had only half a hand in the creation. Where the Dark One had put in thick bush, liquor, wild dogs, and Indians" (2.1.6). If you ask us, it must be pretty brutal to believe the Devil may have singled out your home region for his special attentions—to say nothing of the suggestion that "Indians" are a blight in the same way that wild dogs and alcohol are.
Anyway, you get the point: Erdrich (and her characters) paints a pretty bleak picture of the characters' surroundings. There are flashes of beauty, of course, but overall it seems kind of depressing.
(3) Base Camp
Although the narrative jumps around in time quite a lot—and moves in and out of a lot of different people's minds—Erdrich makes the temporal and character shifts really easy to follow by putting the year in question (and, if relevant, the character "speaking") at the top of sections and chapters. So, it's not totally smooth sailing, but really, it's not that hard to follow what's going on in terms of the narrative's twists and turns.
Beyond that, since a healthy portion of the narrative is written in the first-person, the language is pretty straightforward and straight talk-y. So, we're going to say this one doesn't involve going too far up the mountain—and, bonus, you still get a great view.
Since the narration pulls a switcheroo between each chapter, the style changes pretty dramatically throughout the book depending on who's "speaking." For example, when Lipsha Morrissey is speaking, the narration is less formal and (it seems) more typical of Lipsha's speaking style and perhaps education—put more bluntly, he doesn't talk fancy.
Check out when he's talking about his grandmother, who was pressuring him to use his "touch" to help her out with Nector: "…when she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty" (13.1.53).
As you can see, Lipsha isn't the resident grammarian, and his narration reflects that fact. Also, his narrative gives you a sense of how emotional he is, compared to the other characters; you can kind of see that even in that little snippet of text about his "back prickle."
But then check out what happens when we mosey on over to Albertine's mind:
"Patient Abuse." There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief. (1.2.2)
This quotes is miles away, style-wise, from Lipsha's voice. We hear her level of medical education ("living in the blood like hepatitis"), her studious nature ("There were two ways you could think about that title" sounds like a quote from a university essay) and her reserved nature ("almost a relief" doesn't sound like something a hyper-emotional person would say).
When June's father and grandmother delivered her to Marie, fresh from wandering the woods alone and eating tree sap to survive, she was wearing rosary beads as a necklace—and she refused to take them off. According to Marie:
Trying to explain to her that they were holy beads, not mere regular jewelry, did no good. She just backed away and clutched them in her fist. She wore them constant, even though the others teased her and jerked them lightly from behind when I was not looking. (5.1.23)
These beads were basically a security blanket for June, it seems, but she did ultimately give up the beads when she went to live with her Uncle Eli. She left them hidden in Marie's jar of odds and ends—and Marie, who had been having a rough time with Nector's hard partying ways, ended up using them for comfort herself.
You see, even though Marie isn't one for prayer, she liked touching the beads for reasons that she doesn't entirely articulate:
It has become a secret. I never look at them, just let my fingers roam to them when no one is in the house. It's a rare time when I do this. I touch them, and every time I do I think of small stones. At the bottom of the lake, rolled aimless by the waves, I think of them polished. To many people it would be a kindness. But I see no kindness in how the waves are grinding them smaller and smaller until they finally disappear. (5.1.94)
So, while each woman probably had her own individual idea of what the beads meant, the important takeaway here is that they represent a form of solace and comfort in the face of overwhelming suckiness.
Also, the beads bond June and Marie. Even though Marie was never really able to break through June's walls for too long, they are linked by blood—and the fact that they seemed to have more than their fair share of cruddy things to deal with. June was never particularly loving with Marie, but it seems like leaving the beads for Marie was a warm gesture—maybe she was passing off something that had given her comfort to someone who needed it more?
Water is definitely a symbol for life in this book, rushing along and changing shape much as the characters' lives do.
How do we know this is water's function in the novel? Well, the characters themselves make the connection. For example, when Marie is reflecting on how she and Rushes Bear finally managed to gain some mutual respect and understanding, she uses water metaphors to describe the similarities in their experiences. They finally bonded, in her view:
… [b]ecause we shared the loneliness that was one shape. Because I knew that in her old age she shared that same boat, where I had labored. She crested and sank in dark waves. Those waves were taking her onward, through night, through day, the water beating and slashing across her unknown path. She struggled to continue. She was traveling hard, and death was her light. (5.2.50)
As you can see there, Marie suggests that water and life both bounce you around, make you change direction, drive you on (whether you want to be driven or not), and disorient you. And Marie and Rushes Bear were, in Marie's view, in the same boat on that journey.
Nector, too, makes water a centerpiece in his musings on life. When he realizes that life has basically just pushed him along relentlessly without his really noticing, he likens that forward movement to a current… and the moment in which he actually slows down enough to notice to a pooling in the water:
And then it was like the river pooled.
Maybe I took my eyes off the current too quick, Maybe the fast movement of time had made me dizzy. I was shocked. I remember the day it happened. (7.1.33-34)
After this little pause in Nector's journey down the stream of life, he finds himself pursuing an affair with Lulu in order to "swim against the movement of time" (7.1.39)… and the water metaphors carry right through the end of the affair.
When Nector decides that he's got to let Lulu go, he takes a literal swim as he tries to straighten out the metaphorical "currents" of his love life:
I swam until I felt a clean tug in my soul to go home and forget about Lulu. I told myself I had seen her for the last time that night. I gave her up and dived down to the bottom of the lake where it was cold, dark, still, like the pit bottom of a grave. Perhaps I should have stayed there and never fought. Perhaps I should have taken a breath. But I didn't. The water bounced me up. I had to get back in the thick of my life. (7.1.127).
Of course, the next day, he decided that he was going to propose to Lulu…
But anyway, you get the point: Nector and Marie both liken life to the movements of water, which can push, pull, and overwhelm us. Another prime example of this symbol's use is Henry Junior, of course, since he escapes from his own ocean of troubles by drowning himself.
Also, we'd be falling down on the job if we didn't mention that water becomes important in the references to June as a kind of Jesus figure who must journey (or walk) across the (frozen) water to get home.
That first journey—at the beginning of the book, when she's tromping through the snow—is fatal, and she doesn't make it home. However, at the end of the book, her son Lipsha kind of metaphorically brings her home across the river (in the section named "Crossing the Water"), and the moment kind of reads like been brought back to life (or resurrected) in that moment. So, in these examples too, navigating water is like navigating life… and vice versa.
In Nector Kashpaw's experience, a good portion of non-Native Americans seemed to be fascinated with images of dead and dying Native Americans—and he wanted no part in contributing to such representations. However, unfortunately, he ended up doing so regardless of his scorn for "dead Indians."
But let's back up a little bit and start at the beginning. Nector first put his finger on the American fascination with dead Indians when he was cast in a movie in the most "important" Native American part… which simply involved him dying. No dialogue or significant screen time—just falling off a horse dead. That doesn't sound terribly important to us.
As Nector puts it, "Death was the extent of Indian acting in the movie theater" (7.1.4). Since Nector wasn't down with that (gee, we wonder why?), he passed on the role, saying that dying once in the course of a lifetime would be quite enough for him, thankyouverymuch.
Then, later, a woman offered him a ton of money to paint him. He was super skeptical at first, and he firmly refused to do the job in the nude, but he did ultimately end up posing while wearing a diaper—not while doing anything, but just standing there.
Unfortunately, much to Nector's surprise and dismay, the painter then ended up representing him as jumping to his death:
I could not believe it, later, when she showed me the picture. Plunge of the Brave, was the title of it. Later on, that picture would become famous. It would hang in the Bismarck state capitol. There I was, jumping off a cliff, naked of course, down into a rocky river. Certain death. Remember Custer's saying? "The only good Indian is a dead Indian?" Well, from my dealings with whites I would add to that quote: "The only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse." (7.1.15)
So, yeah, in Nector's experience at least, white men seemed totally disinterested in representing actual Native American lives or voices, instead portraying them as silent and/or dying. And Nector, through that painting, came to embody that representation, despite his best efforts.
Take a deep breath before plunging into this icy river of narrative technique mayhem. The narrative structure pretty confusing and complex, switching between the first-and third-person narration throughout—and, when using the first person, bouncing among seven different narrators. Nineteen chapters use the first person, while the others are—you guessed it!—told in the third.
But there's a definite bonus to participating in the narrative game of hopscotch. Digging into the first-person perspectives of the different characters gives us a much deeper perspective on family dynamics and everyone's personal demons. For example, when describing her early life with the nuns, Marie Lazarre confides in the reader that she does have Native American blood, even though she denies this with everyone else:
I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood. (2.1.1)
As you can see, Marie is pretty keen to make sure everyone knows she's "as good" as anyone else… and in her mind, that means hiding her Native American blood.
Whereas the first-person chapters follow one character's perspective, the third-person (limited omniscient) narrators have a slightly wider perspective. Sure, they can delve into one or two characters' minds, but they can also zoom out to show us the wider world as well. In the section called "A Bridge," for example, we transition smoothly from "following" Albertine and her thoughts to doing the same with Henry Lamartine Junior.
The transition occurs as Albertine follows Henry Lamartine Junior from the bus station. First, the narration tracks Albertine's surveillance of the unknown soldier she's spotted:
He was walking quickly, duffel hoisted up his shoulder, along the opposite side of the street. Again she followed. Stepping from her doorway, she walked parallel with him, bundle slung from her hand and bouncing off her legs. (9.1.16)
Then, the narrator switches us over to Henry in the next paragraph, noting, "He knew the girl had been following and watching" (9.1.17). There's no doubting it: suddenly we're viewing the situation from Henry's perspective, and getting the same kind of insight to his motives and thoughts that we just got with Albertine.
Overall, the mix of different narrative techniques, while complex and a little head spinning, is super effective at giving us both the nitty-gritty details and wide-lens, birds-eye view of its characters.
June Kashpaw, who apparently has had kind of a rough life anyway, goes on a drunken tear with a stranger and ends up dying while walking home in the middle of a storm. Her family (and particularly her son King) has trouble dealing with her death.
The book quickly retreats from this opening trauma, though, and takes us back in time to the beginnings of this branch of the Kashpaws. We learn how Nector and Marie met and ended up together, despite the fact that Nector initially had had his eye on Lulu Lamartine. Some bad stuff happens during this section of the book (for example, Marie was being tortured by a nun before she escaped and met Nector on her way down the hill), but you do get the sense that youth is a time of relative promise for Marie and Nector.
However, as the book progresses, we realize that the characters are trapped by a variety of problems and afflictions that include alcohol addiction, money troubles, and lovey-dovey feelings for non-spouses. In a chapter midway through, Nector realizes that life just kind of passed him by while he was working hard trying to support his children (and all the children that Marie took in), and suddenly he feels old and stuck and can't quite wrap his head around how he got there. So, he starts hankering after Lulu Lamartine again.
Nector starts an affair with Lulu Lamartine, which produces Lyman Lamartine. Nector ultimately decides that he wants to leave Marie for Lulu… but when he goes to tell her that and can't find her, he is so distraught and distracted by the hugeness of what he's doing (and inability to pull it off) that he accidentally sets a fire that destroys Lulu's house and almost kills Lyman. Lulu loses all her hair busting into the house to get her their son.
Nector ends up returning to Marie, who totally ignored the "Dear John" letter Nector had left for her. Then eventually, Nector starts losing his memory, which creates a lot of challenges and heartache for the fam.
Oh, and then after June dies (yup, we've caught back up to the present by this point), Gordie has a really rough time, spending a good portion of his time in a drunken stupor (and, when he can't find alcohol, even resorting to ingesting Lysol). His mother is so worried about him on one occasion that she guards the door to his bedroom with an ax, ostensibly to prevent him from doing himself—or anyone else—any further harm.
And finally: Gerry Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine's son (and father of June's son Lipsha), ends up back in prison—this time with consecutive life sentences—for killing a state trooper. That all sounds pretty nightmarish to us…
Believe it or not, this long sting of unfortunate, no-good events actually ends on a somewhat happy note. Right around the time Lipsha finds out who his parents are (he was the last person in the Kashpaw/Lamartine/Nanapush families to find out, apparently), his father, Gerry, escapes from prison. Even better, the two men end up at King Kashpaw's apartment in the Twin Cities together playing cards.
After Lipsha wins King's car off of him (by cheating at poker), he drives Gerry toward the Canadian border so he can escape. They have a nice ride together, and Lipsha seems to feel more at peace about his family sitch than he has for the entire book. At the end, he's ready to bring the car King bought with June's insurance money—which kind of makes it "her" car—back home to the reservation. The idea of bringing the car home seems to have significance for him on the heels of discovering that June was his mother, and it seems that he literally thinks of it as bringing her home, finally.
Oh, and if you hadn't noticed it already, there's a lot of talk about resurrection and Jesus in the book, most of which is associated with June—and that seems important in thinking about this as a story as one of rebirth, right?
For example at the end of the very first chapter (which is set on Easter weekend), June is described as walking over snow "like water" (um, newsflash, it is water) on her way home, which reminds us more than a little of Jesus.
Then, there are sections called "Resurrection" and "Crown of Thorns," which, while technically about Gordie, are really about how June's death affects him, and how her ghostly presence is still kind of around. So, again, Erdrich always has us thinking about rebirth as we move through the chapters.
So, yeah, Booker's "Rebirth" scheme really nails it here.
The book opens with the final hours of June Kashpaw, who's wandering around Williston, North Dakota, waiting for a bus home. However, instead of making her bus, she ends up having a big time out on the town with some guy she met in a bar. After he falls asleep during a brief and unsuccessful sexual encounter in his truck, she decides to just walk home.
Unfortunately, we soon learn that June never made it home, and she left a big old mess behind her. Her son King is clearly in bad shape, and he seems to abuse both alcohol and his wife, Lynette, in equal measure. She also leaves behind Lipsha, a son who doesn't know he's her son—he just knows he was abandoned. Oh, and then there's Nector Kashpaw, whose family took June in when her mother died—when we meet him, he's addled from dementia/Alzheimer's. All in all, things appear to be pretty rough in the family June left behind.
We get a lot of these details through the first-person perspective of Albertine Johnson, who left the reservation to go to school but still comes back from time to time.
The story then goes way back in time to the 1930s, to the day Nector and Marie met, and then traces the family's backstory. It seems that Nector had previously been pretty hot-and-heavy interested in someone named Lulu Lamartine (née Nanapush) before Marie came into his life. He ended up marrying Marie, though.
We get some details about Lulu Lamartine as well, including intel on how she ended up with nine kids from a wide range of fathers. We also learn more about Nector and June.
After several pages of Nector being a supporting or background character, he takes center stage midway through the novel with a chapter that gives us a whole lot of detail about his backstory, his motivations, and (most importantly) how he ended up hooking up with Lulu Lamartine for five years from 1952-1957 while still married to Marie.
Unfortunately, that romance ends poorly, with Nector finally deciding to leave Marie for Lulu—only to accidentally set her house on fire when he doesn't find Lulu at home when he goes to declare his love. That little incident almost kills Lyman (their son together), and does result in Lulu losing all her hair. So, Lulu marries Beverly (her former brother-in-law), and Nector goes back to Marie.
The story then continues hopping among the characters' sad tales (but consistently moving forward in time), checking in with Albertine, Henry Lamartine Junior, and Lyman Lamartine to show us their situation through the 1970s.
Of particular note: Albertine and Henry Junior meet during that time and end up in bed together. During this encounter, Henry Junior suffers from hallucinations and ends up totally freaking out—you see, he's suffering from some serious PTSD after his tour in Vietnam. The year after their tryst, he dies after jumping into the river. It's left ambiguous, but it seems that the death is a suicide.
We also learn about what happened to Gerry Nanapush, Lulu's son with Moses Pillager. He marries a woman named Dot and is expecting a child, but he is also on the run from the law. As a result, he doesn't end up being with his wife when their daughter, Shawn, is born. In fact, during one of his escapes, he actually ends up in even more trouble because he is accused of shooting a state trooper.
Finally, we learn about the intense depression and substance addiction(s) that Gordie, June's husband, struggles with after her death. Apparently he is so badly off that he steals Lysol from his mother and used it to get high when alcohol wasn't available. He also appears so addled from his alcohol use that, during one of his tours driving drunk, he believes he has hit June (when he had actually hit a deer).
There's still more pain and sadness for the characters in this section, but ultimately at least a few characters seem to find peace with their past and find a path forward. Nector dies in a freak accident (as a result of Marie and Lipsha's combined efforts to give him some "love medicine" to get him away from Lulu Lamartine), but then Lulu and Marie Kashpaw become friends and even comfort each other about Nector's loss. So, that's nice, even if it's a little unconventional, right?
Then there's poor Lipsha, who has gone through most of his life without knowing his biological parents. Lulu clues him into the fact that June and Gerry were his biological parents, and June had given him up for his own good. With that knowledge in hand, and after initially being peeved to be the last person to know this, Lipsha makes peace with his feelings about his mother, finally understands why King (his half-brother) is so nasty to him, and decides that he wants to see his father.
Unfortunately, his father is in prison, so Lipsha is afraid that might be difficult—until his sixth sense tells him that Gerry will be busting out of prison soon. And sure enough, he does, and they end up meeting in King's apartment. Lipsha wins King's car from him in a poker game, and he uses it to give Gerry a ride to the Canadian border.
We don't have too much backstory yet, but we can tell early on that there is tons of pain running under of the surface of the Kashpaw family. The book opens with some details of June Kashpaw's final day on earth, which she spent barhopping with a strange guy rather than coming directly home to her family (as she'd originally planned). She ends up dead that evening, though the particulars are never really revealed.
The book then zooms back to the 1930s and works its way through the years immediately following June's death, which means we get the deep background on June's family and then the aftermath of her death. However, don't go thinking everything revolves around June—this story expands pretty quickly into being about the entire family.
The earliest section of these chapters chronicles the backstory of how Marie and Nector, June's initial guardians, got together and started a family. We also learn about a woman named Lulu Lamartine, who (because she was Nector's first love) ends up being pretty important, too.
After years of raising a family with Marie and working hard, Nector suddenly decides that he wants to hook up with Lulu again. So, that's what happens—and they sneak around together for about five years. Eventually, though, things come to a head when Nector decides he's going to leave Marie for Lulu. That plan never really comes off, but his attempt at making a permanent move to Lulu ends up with Nector accidentally starting a fire. So, he goes back to Marie, and Lulu marries Beverly Lamartine (her ex-brother-in-law).
Also, we get lots of about Lulu's life, her husbands/lovers, and her children. Her family has definitely had more than its fair share of tragedies. Her husband Henry committed suicide, and sadly his namesake (but not biological son, as it turns out) followed in his father's suicidal footsteps when he returned from Vietnam.
Nector's memory worsens, and he eventually dies in a retirement home. After his death, Marie and Lulu end up becoming friends and even mourn Nector together.
Meanwhile, Lulu's grandson, Lipsha, finally finds out that June was his mother—and Gerry, Lulu's son, was his dad. He ultimately seems pretty jazzed about finding out some more details about his origins and resolves to see his dad (who has been in prison off and on for years). That meeting does come to pass, and Lipsha even ends up helping his Pops flee the country so he can once again evade prosecution. And with that, we get a (kinda-sorta) happy ending,