Study Guide

Love Medicine Themes

  • Family

    Erdrich puts a family tree right smack at the front of the book, so you get a sense right off the bat that family is going to be pretty important to everything that happens… plus, the relationships can get a bit confusing—so trust us, that tree will be handy. Characters are wounded by a lot of stuff in the book—cash flow problems, crazy nuns, and war spring to mind—but nothing seems to cause as many problems as family.

    That's kind of a sad thing to say, since your relatives are supposed to be a support system (and there's some of that too in Love Medicine, of course), but it's true—there are a ton of characters with family drama that weighs them down or haunts them. Don't fret, though—there are also some great moments where people manage to find peace in their own screwy family situation; in fact, that's how the book ends up with a happy ending.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why do you think Lipsha seems a lot happier after he realizes that Gerry and June were his biological parents? What does that knowledge do for his life?
    2. Why do you think Marie was never really able to get through to June?
    3. What do you make of the book's overall slant on family? Is it important and helpful for the characters, crucial to forming their identities, or something to be escaped? Or both?
    4. There are a lot of examples of people (e.g., June and Lipsha) being raised by people who aren't their biological parents. What do those examples do for your overall reading of family in the book? We start out with a family tree emphasizing blood ties (for the most part), and then a lot of family relationships end up not being about blood—what do you make of that?

    Chew on This

    Family is most definitely something to be escaped in the novel—just look at Albertine, who has such a poisonous relationship with her mom that she ran away. Escape is the key to dealing with family for sure, as far as this novel is concerned.

    Sure, family is complicated, but coming to terms with all the relationships and figuring out your origins is the single most important aspect of identity, according to this novel.

  • Religion

    Gods and spirits are swirling around everywhere in this book, and their relationships to the characters are super complicated. It seems like Catholicism kind of exists alongside Ojibwe customs and religion, with each tradition/faith having its own jurisdiction or role in the characters' lives.

    For example, Marie seems to hold on to some of her youthful interest in Catholicism (even after escaping the crazy nun), but she also seems to believe in Native American traditions somewhat—why else would she ask Lipsha to practice some "love medicine" on Nector? None of the main characters seems to be super religious, but there seems to be a heavy dose of spiritualism in the way they think about the world.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How do Catholicism and Ojibwe customs coexist and conflict with one another? What does that do for your understanding of the characters and their motives?
    2. How do Marie's religious beliefs evolve in the novel?
    3. What role does Sister Leopolda play in the novel overall? Marie's childhood encounter with her is pretty brutal—what does it say about religion or spirituality in the novel as a whole? What is its longstanding impact on Marie?
    4. Resurrection actually pops up a few times in the novel—it's a section title late in the book, and the novel's opening has lots of references to resurrection and Jesus. What do you make of this emphasis on the Christian notion of rising from the dead?

    Chew on This

    The novel emphasizes resurrection and rebirth to highlight moments of renewal in the regular old lives of its characters—for example, the way Lipsha is about to start fresh the end of the book.

    Catholicism is portrayed as pretty harmful to the Native American characters in its pure form (check out Sister Leopolda), but it's okay as long as it's just integrated within the characters' other traditions or personal customs (for example, as it is with June/Marie's beads, which take on new meaning for both women that goes beyond the rosary).

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Alcohol abuse is everywhere in Love Medicine, particularly among the male characters, and that definitely contributes to our overall sense that these characters are not happy campers. As Nector himself says, alcohol represented an escape for him as a young man, and it seems like a lot of the other dudes on the reservation felt the same way.

    Not surprisingly, alcohol abuse gets worse as the characters get more and more unhappy. Take Gordie, for example, who apparently turned to alcohol after June's death, and ended up so desperate for a high that he did all kinds of dangerous stuff (like driving drunk in search of more liquor, and drinking Lysol).

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Alcohol problems seem to be more prevalent among the male characters—why do you think that is? Does the narrative suggest a reason?
    2. Does the presentation of alcohol abuse change throughout the book? If so, how?
    3. How is alcohol abuse related to some of the novel's other major themes and symbols?

    Chew on This

    The novel's focus on alcoholism is definitely related to the symbol of water—they call it "drowning your sorrows" when you drink a lot, right? The novel's consistent return to the topic of drowning is definitely related to the characters' use and abuse of alcohol.

    Alcohol abuse is a big theme because it emphasizes the intensity of the characters' sadness/depression.

  • Love

    Well, the title of the book is Love Medicine, so we're sure you're not surprised to see this theme on our list. With the book's emphasis on family, love is obviously going to be pretty important—although at times it seems like every feeling but love is present among certain family members.

    It seems like finding love—often through family, but not always—is pretty important for the characters and their sense of wellbeing. Actually, come to think of it, love really is kind of the ultimate "medicine" in that way. Everyone seems to be searching desperately for it, and when it comes around (for example, for Lipsha Morrissey), things really can turn around.

    Questions About Love

    1. What are some examples of ways in which lack of love harmed characters, and the presence of love strengthened them?
    2. There are a lot of unhappy marriages in the book, but are there any happy ones? Or just happy relationships? What do these relationships tell us about the book overall?
    3. Is love a kind of magic in the book's universe? If so, is it more good magic or bad magic? How do we know?

    Chew on This

    Love is presented as a kind of black magic, driving characters like Nector to cheat on their wives and hurt their families.

    Love is presented as a kind of wonderful magic, one that has the power to repair the wounds of the past (for example, with Lipsha at the end of the novel).

  • War

    Okay, so war isn't happening on the fields of North Dakota, but the Vietnam War happens during the span of Love Medicine and that conflict definitely has a major impact on Henry Lamartine Junior, who suffers some gnarly PTSD after coming home (and eventually commits suicide—well, we think that's what happens, anyway).

    But really, references to soldiers and joining the service extend even beyond Henry Junior or even the Vietnam conflict as a whole. Sometimes it seems like joining up seems like an appealing option, given the troubles these characters have on the home front.

    Questions About War

    1. Why is Erdrich so interested in soldiers? What do you think they represent, and why is that important in her book (which is mostly about a group of families)?
    2. What do you make of the passing references to Albertine's father, who was a soldier?
    3. What about Henry Junior? We don't learn a ton about him, other than some patchy details about his war experience and its aftermath—what role does he play in the lives of other characters/the novel as a whole?

    Chew on This

    The figure of the soldier kind of brings up images of service and violence, and Erdrich definitely wants you thinking about both when you consider the relationship between Native Americans and those who surround and have power over them. After all, these soldiers are fighting for a country that, in the past, massacred their people.

    Even though war isn't central to the actual plot, Erdrich makes consistent references to soldiers/violence to emphasize the ongoing tension between Native Americans and non-Native Americans.

  • Abuse

    Alcohol abuse isn't the only kind of abuse going on in the Love Medicine—there's plenty of psychological and physical abuse as well. This happens within families, with characters often carrying on long-standing psychological warfare, and others being outright violent and abusive to their partners.

    As with alcoholism, it seems like these forms of abuse are stem from the characters' deep-seated unhappiness with their lives overall. Whatever the cause, the overwhelming number of examples of crummy behavior between the characters is pretty upsetting and creates a mood of overall violence and depression.

    Questions About Abuse

    1. What are the origins of the characters' abusive behaviors, do you think? Are these just (unfortunately) examples of the kinds of typical dramas that some families get wrapped up in, or something else?
    2. Is there any hope for the characters to get out of the cycles of abuse that they're wrapped up in? If so, where do you find that hope?
    3. What do you make of the narrators' stance toward the violence and abuse they portray? Are they critical? Indifferent? Numb? Why does it matter?

    Chew on This

    The narrators' kind of bland, impassive stance toward the abuses portrayed really drives home the bleakness of the characters' circumstances—this kind of stuff is so "normal" that the narrators can't even be bothered to get worked up about it.

    Erdrich suggests that the cycles of violence continue seamlessly from generation to generation, with no progress or change, which suggests the overall crumminess of the characters' circumstances.

  • Death

    As if the novel's other big themes didn't provide enough sadness, death is also a player in Love Medicine. In particular, there happen to be a ton of (possible?) suicides in the book, suggesting that, for some characters, meeting the Grim Reaper is preferable to what they were dealing with in life.

    The living characters are often preoccupied by death and loss—although it's kind of noteworthy that they don't see death necessarily as the big end that some might. Oh, and there's the fact that resurrection kind of comes up a lot. Death and the afterlife loom large in the book, and the characters overall seem pretty interested in thinking about them.

    Questions About Death

    1. Was June's death a suicide? Why or why not? How about Henry Junior's? Henry Senior's? Wait, back up—why are there so many characters that may or may not have committed suicide?
    2. Is death presented as a scary end, or simply as a next step in the natural cycle of life/death? Or is it both? How do we know?
    3. What's with all the references to resurrection? Is death something that the characters can vanquish? Or are we dealing with something more metaphorical here?

    Chew on This

    Death is probably the least scary thing in these characters' lives, and the easiest to "overcome" through ideas like resurrection.

    The book emphasizes suicides to underscore the overall vein of self-destructiveness that seems to run through the characters and their actions.

  • Race

    If you know even a little bit about Native American history, you know that there's a lot of reason for tension between Native Americans and European Americans—and that are still a lot of prejudices against Native Americans based on race. C'mon: there are still sports teams with Native American caricatures as mascots, for Pete's sake, and people still throw around terms like "Indian giving."

    Given that historical backdrop and its present-day echoes, Love Medicine portrays race-based tensions a powerful presence and important factor in the novel's situations.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why do you think Marie is so skittish about mentioning her Native American blood? With basically everyone else, she seems to pretty much do her own thing regardless of what anyone does or thinks, so what do you make of the fact that she's skittish about that particular thing?
    2. Why do you think non-Native Americans are so big on creating representations of Native Americans dying in the novel? What's the psychology there?
    3. What do you make of Henry Junior's flashback to the woman in Vietnam who tried to get Henry to take mercy on him by suggesting that they looked the same? What does this moment do for your overall understanding of what the book is doing with race?

    Chew on This

    Henry's flashback to the Vietnamese woman suggests a similarity between all races—that is, how little difference there is between people around the worlds, and this superficial similarity in their eyes was just the symbol of that common thread.

    Henry's flashback to the Vietnamese woman suggests a similarity between the Ojibwe and the Vietnamese as victims of the U.S. government's policies of violence and aggression.