Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is exactly what I would want out of a "Best Books" list. Something unexpected but brilliant, foreign yet familiar. Love Medicine has a little bit of everything, all centered in a place rarely visited by most fiction: a reservation.
Erdrich shouldn't be new to me, but she is. Her novel Tracks was an assigned text in college, in one of those rare classes where you couldn't slide by without reading the books. But somehow or another, I slid by, only reading twenty pages or so. It's not that it wasn't good, but it was college, and there were so many other interesting things to do. Having read Love Medicine now, I would rearrange my to-read pile to put Tracks closer to the top, but I think it's been lent out somewhere, and has yet to find its way back home.
Going and finding home are themes that run throughout Love Medicine, which is not so much a novel as a collection of short stories that wind tightly into each other. Each story bleeds through the rest, as we see the same characters over and over again, at different stages of their lives. Some stories take us far from the North Dakota reservation most of the characters would call home, while a many never leave it. But all those that leave eventually return. "The Red Convertible" winds from Winnipeg through Montana and Washington before heading back home. "Saint Marie" treks up the hill to the convent and then back down again to the reservation. The characters of Love Medicine have a sense of home that few of us do anymore.
To have such a fierce connection to a particular place is indeed unusual in this modern age of rootlessness. I read this book in Michigan, visiting my husband's parents, after having visited my own in Kansas, but I was soon to return to Arizona, where I am living now, far from any family of either my husband's or myself. Love Medicine made me yearn for a home like that, even despite the price some of the characters pay for the strength of their bonds.
For instance, in my favorite story of the collection, "Scales," home is not so much a place for Gerry as it is a person, Dot. So time after time, after breaking out of prison (and bragging that "no steel or concrete shitbarn could hold a Chippewa,") Gerry returns to Dot. Never mind that Gerry is 6'2" and no good at hiding. Never mind that every time, sooner or later the police show up at Dot's place looking for Gerry. For Gerry, Dot is home, and there is no place else he wants to be.
Erdrich's writing is simple and powerful, and above all else it is captivating. Her stories ring with both magic and truth. Whether you consider Love Medicine to be a collection of short stories or a novel, it is truly a gem of a book.