Study Guide

Love Medicine Religion

By Louise Erdrich

Religion

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)

Both Marie and Zelda apparently thought about doing the convent thing before they started families. Marie's experience ended up going awry, of course, thanks to the wacko nun, and Zelda apparently was thwarted by maternity and "Swede."

No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard. There was no use in trying to ignore me any longer. 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. And they never thought they'd have a girl from this reservation as a saint they'd have to kneel to. But they'd have me. And I'd be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss. (2.1.1)

For Marie, being seen as equal to or as good as the nuns was pretty important. Apparently, Marie was super ashamed of having some Native American blood, and here she tries to kind of assure herself of a kind of democracy within religion/Catholicism that would help her make up for that "deficit"—after all, she could "pray as good" as the others, so she herself was just as good, right?

I had the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town. For Sunday Mass is the only time my aunt brought us children in except for school, when we were harnessed. Our soul went cheap. We were so anxious to get there we would have walked in on our hands and knees. We just craved going to the store, slinging bottle caps in the dust, making fool eyes at each other. And of course we went to church. (2.1.4)

Marie reflects on the origins of her enthusiasm for religion, which, before it was about proving her status/equality, was apparently just about getting to go into town and see everything—that was the big draw for her and the other children in her family.

It was a poor convent. I didn't see that then, but I know that now. Compared to others it was humble, ragtag, out in the middle of no place. It was 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)

Catholicism has a weird position in the book… at times, it seems like it hasn't replaced Native American customs and religion so much as claimed its own jurisdiction within those customs. You can see that here in this quote from Marie's inner monologue, which suggests that perhaps the Catholic God hasn't been entirely responsible for everything around them at the reservation—apparently, in some people's views, Satan took over with certain things, including alcohol and "Indians."

I was like those bush Indians who stole the holy black hat of a Jesuit and swallowed little scraps of it to cure their fevers. But the hat itself carried smallpox and was killing them with belief. Veils of faith! (2.1.8)

Here, Marie's faith appears to be getting a shake, perhaps because she's become the victim of the crazed and delusional Sister Leopolda. There definitely seems to be an analogy between the smallpox-infested hat Marie references and Leopolda's "religion"—they both look like holy things, but they kill.

The Pillager was living back there with the spirits. Back where the woods were logged off and brush had twisted together, impassable, she kept house and cared for Nanapush. That side of the lake belonged to her. Twice she lost it, twice she got it back. Four times she returned. Now she wore moccasins, let her braids grow long, traveled into town on foot, scorned the nuns as they scorned her, visited the priest. She made no confession, though some said Father Damien Modeste confessed his sins to her. (5.2.29)

These are Marie's thoughts about Fleur Pillager, Lulu's mother, who helped Marie while she was giving birth. Like Lulu and Lipsha, Fleur definitely seems to be associated with Native American customs and religion (as opposed to any others that had been introduced by non-Native Americans)—as Marie says, Fleur "scorned" the nuns and, yet, "was living back there with the spirits." In other words, she does her own thing, and she doesn't kowtow to the local priest… if anything, he kowtows to her, apparently.

But I hadn't seen her visiting the sick nor raising the sad ones up. No everyday miracles for her. Her talent was the relishment of pain, foaming at the mouth, and it was no surprise to me that lately there had been a drastic disarrangement of her mind. (8.1.3)

Several years after her dramatic encounter with the mad nun, Marie is considering going to visit Sister Leopolda, since she had heard she was on her last legs. Marie's impression is that the nun's "religion" is still just as brutal and unchristian as it had been when she was a child.

I sweat. I broke right into a little cold sweat at my hairline because I knew this was perfectly right and for years not one damn other person had noticed it. God's been going deaf. Since the Old Testament, God's been deafening up on us. (13.1.26)

Here, Lipsha is reflecting on his grandfather's habit of shouting in church. Nector had explained himself as trying to make sure that God heard him, and Lipsha was really struck by the idea that God's hearing has been getting bad. Of course, given the hardships that he and many others in his family had endured, it's no wonder the thought would have occurred to him.

Now there's your God in the Old Testament and there is Chippewa Gods as well. Indian Gods, good and bad, like tricky Nanabozho or the water monster, Missepeshu, who loves over in Matchimanito. That water monster was the last God I ever heard to appear. It had a weakness for young girls and grabbed one of the Pillagers off her rowboat. She got to shore all right, but only after this monster had its way with her. (13.1.27)

Remember when we mentioned that the Christian and Native American gods kind of shared jurisdiction over the human race in this book? Well, that's basically what Lipsha is talking about here, as he reflects on which God or gods he's heard from lately. In his mind, the two types of gods most definitely can coexist.

Once I gave the tribal council hell about their mortal illusions. And yet here I was making my one big mistake in life over again for the sake of illusion. What I felt for Nector was just elusive dreams but no less powerful for being false. He had no true memory or mind. I should have known that. (15.1.101)

Although Lulu's thoughts here are more about love than religion, her musings about "mortal illusions" liken the kind of faith (and mistakes) that relationships involve to more existential issues…

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