This novel by Louise Erdrich is the third in the Love Medicine series, after Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. I very much enjoyed this third novel of the series. I’m loving how with each novel one gets more and more pieces of the puzzle that shows the lives of all these diverse people, whether Native American, white, or of both cultures. My review contains spoilers (although the novel is very full of all sorts of themes and I can’t possibly touch on all of them).
The novel is set on Native American land around the town Argus (which is familiar from the other novels in the series). We also meet characters that we met before. It’s about the years 1912 to 1924 and, as usual for this series, the novel contains episodes in the lives of many characters (like a colourful patchwork). In this case is the main story is about the early years of Fleur Pillager (from 17 to 27). At 17, Fleur is the last survivor of her family, whose members all died of an infectious disease along with many other Native Americans on the reservation. I’m not sure what disease it was, maybe pneumonia? It seems to have been a disease of the lungs. Fleur is unofficially adopted by Nanapush, an older man of around 50+ years, also the only survivor of his family. Nanapush is the grandfather (by adoption) of Fleur’s daughter Lulu (who played a role in Love Medicine) and he is one of the two narrators of the story. He tells Lulu Fleur’s story to stop her from marrying into a disreputable family (so he’s telling the story of the years 1912 to 1924 at some unspecified later time when Lulu, who was born in 1914, is grown up) and to get her to reconcile with her mother. Nanapush tells Fleur’s story as someone who loves her, but we also get the story from the second narrator, Paulina Puyat, who has a love-hate relationship with Fleur. The two narrators tell the story in alternating chapters. In a way, Paulina is Fleur’s counterpart, and also a main character. We learn how she turns into the severe, almost hellish nun Leopolda (who also turns up in various novels). She is a hateful character but also pitiable.
Paulina loses her family, too, but it’s not clear if they died or abandoned her. She left them to move in with an aunt in Argus, because she wanted to learn the ways of white people, and especially to learn lace-making from the town’s nuns. It didn’t work out and when she returned to the reservation, her family was gone. She was only 15 or thereabouts.
From the beginning of the novel, we learn that Fleur isspecial. She is feared for her malignant powers (which at least partly seems like malicious gossip and superstition). There is something mythic about her. Her entire family was apparently dangerous to cross even when dead.
When Paulina and Fleur were in Argus, they worked at the Kozkas’ butcher shop (which played a large role in The Beet Queen). Fleur won quite a bit of money at poker from three men who also worked at the butcher’s. These men felt aggrieved at Fleur and one night, when the Kotzkas were away, they decided to punish her by raping her. Paulina witnessed the rape and was seen by Fleur but felt unable to help. This soured their relationship. Later on, though, during a tornado, Pauline caused the death of two of the men by locking them into a cold storage room in which they had sought to escape the storm. They froze to death, which preyed on Paulina’s mind.
Both Fleur and Paulina return to the reservation, where Fleur, who is pregnant, gets into a relationship with Eli Kashpaw, who may or may not be Lulu’s father. Fleur and Eli live in a fairly traditional way and form a loving family but struggle to pay the taxes on their land allotment. Paulina moves in with the Morrissey family, has an rather brutal affair with Napoleon Morrissey, and bears an unloved child, Marie Lazarre (whom we know from Love Medicine). She turns to the Christian religion and tries to gain some kind of recognition by turning herself into a saint by mortification of the flesh, that is, by trying follow in Christ’s footsteps through suffering. She is exceedingly self-righteous but also lonely and adrift. She can’t seem to stay away from Fleur and her family, and often tries to harm them with plots and machinations, some of which are at least somewhat successful. At length, she renounces her Native America past, murders Napoleon, and turns herself into the nun Leopolda (a fearsome and unloving person). Her religiosity seems born of hate and jealousy, not love.
Fleur in the meantime can’t keep up her relationship with Eli and can’t keep her land. Both she and Nanapush are swindled by the machinations of Eli’s mother and the land agent. Also, the laws are against them. These are people needing government support to survive famines and are still required to pay taxes in order to keep their land. Other families from their reservation and white farmers buy up the lost land and chop down the woods in which Fleur lived. She has to give up Lulu to keep her safe (she sent her to government boarding school or at least didn’t prevent her being taken away). In the end, Fleur takes to the road as a travelling trader in homemade remedies and other things (in The Beet Queen she’s the one who saved Karl Adaire when he fell off the train).
This book, after the more light-hearted Beet Queen, is bleaker. All the tracks seem to lead nowhere or into an uncertain future. Fleur’s way, the Native American way of life, seems incompatible with the times, so that she can’t keep her land or her family. Other Native American families fall prey to alcoholism or buy up the land (if it isn’t taken over by white people). There is envy for successful families. Many families are in more or less serious feuds with other families on the reservation. There doesn’t seem to be a concerted community effort to fight against the loss of tradition and land. Even within families people follow different tracks or ways of life. Regina’s way is to follows all the negative parts of Christianity with none of the good. Fleur turns into a travelling trader and we don’t learn what exactly becomes of her. Nanapush manages to come to an arrangement with his circumstances. At one point he goes into politics so that he can save Lulu from having to live at the government boarding school. Lulu remains estranged from Fleur. Nanapush’s storytelling is aimed at getting her to reconcile with Fleur but it remains open if he is successful.
I hope some of the character’s stories will be taken up in the following novels of the series which I am looking forward to reading.
Keep safe world.