Love Medicine: A Signification of the Healing and Destructive Power of Death

In the story Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich heralds an original territory of modern-day Native American life and provides a sympathetic and yet obdurate view about its people. The author creates a piece of fiction which can be best described as “sophisticated,” “commonsensical,” and “unadulterated.” The author sets out to establish relationships, keep track of the characters in their respective stories, and create a semantic framework, tying the characters together in the process. In the novel, what generally matters (relevance of signification) are the bonds of love, affection, frustration, aspiration, and anger that keep the characters together, even though some of them are naturally bounded to the reservation, some to the cities, and some to their newly-acquired homes. One of the recurring themes in the novel is the ever-persistent flagrance of the so-called “love medicine,” a semi-herbal medicine plucked from earth-grown dandelions and the goose heart – a medicine that came to symbolize both the destructive and healing powers of death.

One of the story’s characters, Lipsha, spends most of his time pondering questions about fate and religion. He is usually alone, taking care of his Grandma and Grandpa, ever hopeful that somehow, life would become easier for them. He turns momentarily to religion, wondering why the so-called Catholic God has not heard their prayers. His Grandpa is apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s (or what his grandfather calls ‘second childhood’). At church, Lipsha keeps mumbling about God and their gods, ever conscious of the fact that they were not originally Catholics:

Our Gods aren’t perfect, is what I’m saying, but at least they come around. They’ll do a favor if you ask them right. You don’t have to yell. But you do have to know, like I said, how to ask in the right way. That makes problems, because to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we got to yell, or if we just don’t speak its language (Erdrich 280).

If God is merciful, then why did He leave his Grandpa to his fate? So many questions are hounding Lipsha. Perhaps, is it because the God of the Catholics do not live in their land? Or perhaps the Indians are simply relying on their love medicines for cure rather than on God? There are certainly so many things to ponder on. Then Lipsha begins to wonder about his supposedly short life, about the past, about the land they have inherited from civil strife and war. “Could it be that this was merely a coincidence?” asks Lipsha. In his short life, he has seen many things –ugly things, things that have afflicted his blood and nation, things that have been brought about by war and epidemic a century ago:

I looked around me. How else could I explain what all I had seen in my short life – king smashing his fist in things, Gordie drinking himself down to the Bismarck hospitals, or Aunt June left by a white man to wander off in the snow. How else to explain the times my touch don’t work, and farther back, to the oldtime Indians who was swept away in the outright germ warfare and dirty-dog killing of the whites. In those times, us Indians was so much kindlier than now (Erdrich 281).

Then a thought suddenly appears in Lipsha’s mind: love medicines. Love medicines, having been plucked from earth-grown dandelions and from goose hearts, could certainly bring back his grandfather’s sanity. The conjuring effect of today’s medicines on patients like Lipsha’s grandfather has certainly taken a toll on his sanity. Did they make it worse? Definitely yes, according to Lipsha. True or not, Lipsha and his Grandma have no other choice. Love medicines are part and parcel of Chippewa’s cultural heritage. These “medicines” signify the healing power of death. Ironically though, love medicines are a gift of the gods, for man to consume to that he may acquire the freshness of life. Inasmuch as the healing is concerned, love medicines signify the collective consciousness of a people who had lost so much, and therefore who had very little to bargain. Modern life has forced them to look back to the past – a way of rejuvenating their shattered spirits. In one way or another, this is what love medicines stand for – hope and danger:

But when she mentions them love medicines, I fell my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicines is not for the layman to handle. You don’t just go out and get one without paying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up you life grinding up the wrong little thing (Erdrich 283).

And danger does spell abound, at least in Grandpa’s case. Lipsha has all the pain in the world to bear. The slightest touch of hope seems to give life to an already disgruntled spirit, first against the God of the Catholics, then against modern life, and finally against death itself. The love medicine seems to have a chilling effect on Grandpa’s body. He may have over-consumed it, against Grandma’s advice. Grandpa’s desire to enjoy his second childhood seems to have gotten hold of him to the point of extinction. As said earlier, even before obtaining a sizeable amount of love medicines, one needs to go through a lot of mental condensation. And, what about consumption? Certainly, there is a thin line between life and death, sanity and insanity. Grandpa has swallowed a sizeable amount of love medicines, causing his body to shamble, snuffing his life at an instant. But there is hope. Grandpa’s death has brought the whole family together – old rivalries forgotten, pleasantries exchanged:

So I had the perspective on it all, for death gives you that. All the Kashpaw children had done various things to me in their lives – shared their folks with me, loaned me cash, beat me up in secret – and I decided, because of death, then and there I’d call it quits. If I ever saw King again, I’d shake his hand. Forgiving somebody else made the whole thing easier to bear. Everybody saw Grandpa off into the next world. And then the Kashpaws had to get back to their jobs, which was numerous and impressive. I had a few beers with them and I went back to Grandma, who had sort of got lost in the shuffle of everybody being sad about Grandpa and glad to see one another (Erdrich 290).

Grandpa’s death signifies the destructive power of death. It symbolizes its viciousness, magnified by events which had torn the reservation asunder in the past. The love medicines plucked from earth-grown dandelions and goose hearts certainly possess impressive healing powers, according to old men and women in the village. But love medicines are processed from earth-dwelling plants and goose hearts, a signification that necessarily brings forth the two ends of the Chippewa life cycle: re-birth and death. Its healing power signifies the copious gratuity of the death. Its destructive power expresses the backwardness, the malevolence, and ill fate of mortality.

As far as the role of a Higher Power in Grandpa’s death is concerned, one thing is certain: the actual power of the love medicine was not the ingredients per se but faith in its power to heal.

How does that sound? I thought how we might have to yell to be heard by Higher Power, but that’s not saying it’s not there. And that is faith for you. It’s belief even when the goods don’t deliver. Higher Power makes promises we all know they can’t back up, but anybody ever go and slap an old malpractice suit on God? Or the U.S. government? No they don’t. Faith might be stupid but it gets us through. So what I’m heading at is this. I finally convinced myself that the real actual power to the love medicine was not the goose heart itself but the faith in the cure (Erdrich 286).

Lipsha is not denying the existence of a Higher Power. Religion is measured in faith rather than utility. Even if God does not want to manifest Himself either in form or in revelation, faith still abounds to those who call upon Him. Faith is something that is already assumed, much like Lipsha’s faith in the healing power of the love medicines.

Thus Grandpa has been buried in the land of his ancestors. The sun flower begins to wither, much like the withering of the body in old age. All Lipsha can do at this point in time is to uncurl the seed of the dark pitch, as though someone is being buried with the frail seeds. Such an incident is akin to death. The land is graveyard of those who had already left this world. Yet, ironically, it is also the spring-bed of life altogether – where the meadows are, where the flowers are, where the once mighty Indian houses of old stood, are certainly memories of a land whose arms stretch forth in deep solitude:

Outside, the sun was hot and heavy as a hand on my back. I felt it flow down my arms, out my fingers, arrowing through the ends of the fork into the earth. With every root I prized up there was return, as if I was kin to its secret lesson. The touch got stronger as I worked through the grassy afternoon. Uncurling from me like a seed out of the blackness where I was lost, the touch spread. The spiked leaves full of bitter mother’s like. A buried root. A nuisance people dig up and throw in the sun to wither. A globe of frail seeds that’s indestructible (Erdrich 292).

Thus, for Lipsha, all hope is not lost, certainly not with the death of his beloved Grandpa. The land is a place for the departed. This is a fact of nature. But it is also a place where life is renewed and reproduced. And this is attested by the rejuvenating power of the love medicines, from which faith in the cure is found. The death of his grandfather is not the end of things. It is certainly not a conjured image of hope, for life is an ever-present reality. The death of a loved one is merely a phase, a transition period between extinction and re-birth. Thus, a globe of frail seeds that are indestructible will soon inhabit the land – the inheritance of death, and the progenitor of life anew.

This supposition is well-expressed in the love medicines which Lipsha placed all his hopes. Love medicines came to signify the healing and destructive power of death, a signification that necessarily brings forth the two ends of the Chippewa life cycle: re-birth and death.

Work Cited

Erdrich, Louis. Love Medicines. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993, pp. 277-292. Print.

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