Study Guide

Love Medicine Family

By Louise Erdrich

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Far from home, living in a white woman's basement, that letter made me feel buried, too. I opened the envelope and read the words. I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section "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)

These are Albertine's thoughts about her relationship with her mother, Zelda. As you can see, these two ladies have issues. Zelda resents Albertine for running away from home and going to nursing school, so she neglects to tell Albertine that June is dead until a week later, since she claims she believed Albertine would be too busy to come home. Talk about classic passive aggressiveness.

I was so mad at my mother, Zelda, that I didn't write or call for almost two months. She should have gone up the nun's hill to the convent, like she wanted, instead of having me. But she had married Swede Johnson from off-reservation, and I'd arrived premature. He'd had the grace, at least, to go AWOL from army boot camp and never let his face be seen again. (1.2.15)

Apparently Albertine firmly believes that her mother should have just become a nun rather than having her, and that she is better off because her father had disappeared entirely. We're not exactly getting a lot of warmth from this family so far, are we?

I'd been the one who'd really blocked my mother's plans for being pure. I'd forced her to work for money, keeping books, instead of pursuing tasks that would bring divine glory on her head. I'd caused her to live in a trailer near Grandma so that there would be someone to care for me. Later on, I'd provided her with years of grinding grief. I had gone through a long phase of wickedness and run away. Yet now that I was on the straight and narrow, things were even worse between us. (1.2.15)

Now Albertine tells us a bit more about why her mother feels so much resentment for her. It seems that in addition to just taking up money, time, and energy that Zelda could have put toward "divine glory," Albertine ran away. Considering that Zelda clearly felt she gave up a lot, she must have resented that a good bit.

After two months were gone and my classes were done, and although I still had not forgiven my mother, I decided to go home. I wasn't crazy about the thought of seeing her, but our relationship was like a file we sharpened on, and necessary in that way. (1.2.16)

Apparently, Albertine was pretty good at passive aggressive warfare herself, and decided she wasn't going home or responding to her mother's super late news right away. However, she ultimately gave in to the need to see her family.

The two aunts gave her quick, unbelieving looks. Then they were both uneasily silent, neither of them willing to take up the slack and tell the story I knew was about June. I'd heard Aurelia and my mother laughing and accusing each other of the hanging in times past, when it had been only a family story and not the private trigger of special guilts. They looked at me, wondering if I knew about the hanging, but neither would open her lips to ask. So I said I'd heard June herself tell it. (1.2.90)

Here, once Albertine has gotten home, her mother and her Aunt Aurelia are kind of hesitant to tell the old family howler about how June had almost been hanged as part of a game they played as children. Now that June is actually dead, the women find it a lot less funny… imagine that.

"I consider Grandma Kashpaw my mother, even though she just took me in like any old stray." (1.4.20)

This is what Lipsha Morrissey says to Albertine when the two of them are getting drunk and staring at the stars. Albertine happens to know that June is actually Lipsha's real mother and is trying to get up the nerve to tell Lipsha, but she doesn't quite get there.

I never wanted much, and I needed even less, but what happened was that I got everything handed to me on a plate. It came from being a Kashpaw, I used to think, our family was respected as the last hereditary leaders of this tribe. But Kashpaws died out around here, people forgot, and I still kept getting offers. (7.1.1)

These are Nector's thoughts regarding how everything came easy to him when he was younger. Because the Kashpaws were a prominent and powerful family in the tribe, Nector thought his prestige came from that. But apparently not, since he was still a big deal even when his family wasn't anymore.

Sometimes I escaped. I had to have relief. I went drinking and caught holy hell from Marie. After a few years the babies started walking around, but that only meant they needed shoes for their feet. I gave in. I put my nose against the wheel. I kept it there for many years and barely looked up to realize the world was going by, full of wonders and creatures, while I was getting old baling hay for white farmers. (7.1.31)

Although Marie and his own mother seem to have believed Nector was a useless party boy, Nector describes himself as having put his "nose against the wheel" to provide for his family. And boy did he come to resent it, when he woke up one day and realized that time had passed him by…

One day I told her I had paid her back in full by staying at her beck and call. I'd do anything for Grandma. She knew that. Besides, I took care of Grandpa like nobody else could, on account of what a handful he'd gotten to be. (13.1.1)

These are Lipsha's thoughts here. It seems that Marie had tried to guilt him into being more helpful with his grandpa (since he had the healing touch), using her history with him to do a guilt trip, but Lipsha was only halfway taking the bait—since he knew he'd done a lot to repay his grandmother's kindness.

I was King's half brother, see, a bastard son of June's. (16.2.12)

Finally, Lipsha has discovered the identity of his mother (and his father, too). Up to this point, he has seemed pretty haunted by his belief that he was abandoned, so this revelation of who his parents actually were and the circumstances in which June gave him up seems to bring him some closure and peace.

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