Engaging first novel records 50 years on a Chippewa reservation
Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 272 pp. $ 13.95.
''I grew up with (my mother) in an aqua-and-silver trailer, set next to the old house on the land my great-grandparents were allotted when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers. . . . The main house, where all of my aunts and uncles grew up, is one big square room with a cooking shack tacked onto it. The house is a light peeling lavender now, the color of a pale petunia.''
This is the family home of the Kashpaws on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, and the speaker is Albertine Johnson, one of the many narrators of this fine first novel, which spans the years between 1934 and 1984.
Chapter by chapter, voices chime in and stories intertwine:
Marie, Albertine's grandmother, grows from a naive young girl - ''The length of the sky is just about the size of my ignorance'' - to a woman determined to make something out of her husband, raising her own children and taking in strays , which include her niece, the doomed June.
Handsome Nector, Marie's husband, is a twin whose mother let him go to school while hiding Eli, his brother, from the authorities. ''In that way she gained a son on either side of the line. Nector came home from boarding school knowing white reading and writing, while Eli knew the woods.'' Nector is fond of drinking and gambling, but eventually Marie reforms him, rejoicing, ''Now I was solid class. Nector was tribal chairman.'' Yet Nector succumbs to another vice, his first love, Lulu Lamartine.
Delcares Lulu, ''I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms.'' She has eight sons by eight different fathers to prove it. The story of one of these sons is a powerful tale about reaction to being a Vietnam POW; the high-spirited story of another son is about daredevil escapes from the police. Both stories involve prisons in the outside world, where the sons are as trapped as they were on the reservation.
The Indians' plight is always implied, and on rare occasions it is also stated, with a passionate tone sheathed in irony. ''I never let the United States census in my door,'' Lulu remarks, ''even though they say it's good for Indians. Well, quote me. I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of.''
The Kashpaws' and the Lamartines' lives continue to interweave even in a senior citizens' home. By the end of the book, we have a kaleidoscope of images that stay with us, among them: Marie's children being put to bed, fitted ''together on the rollaway, neat puzzles of arms and legs''; Marie in a frenzy, peeling every potato in the house when she learns of Nector's infidelity; the love medicine itself, in literal and figurative forms; commodity rice, commodity beef, and perhaps the only seduction scene ever caused by surplus butter.
Lyrical and funny, mystical and down-to-earth, ''Love Medicine'' entrances.
Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.