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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.