Weeks later, Albertine Johnson opens a letter from her mother, Zelda. Albertine’s Aunt June has passed away, Zelda writes, but they knew that Albertine wouldn’t have been able to get away from her studies, so they didn’t tell her sooner. Albertine is away from home, attending nursing school in Fargo. June’s mother had been the sister of Albertine’s grandmother, Marie, and June’s father was a “no-good Morrissey” who left the reservation long ago. June was raised by Albertine’s great-uncle Eli, and then June married Gordie, her cousin and brother for all intents and purposes. Marie had been so angry when her son, Gordie, married June, she didn’t let either of them in her house for over a year.
The complex web of connections between the Morrisseys and the Kashpaws reflects the deep connection between tribal members and families in Native American culture. Even those tribal members who are not related by blood are tied together by other significant relationships, such as Eli’s adoption of June or June’s marriage to Gordie. This passage also establishes the Morrisseys as “no-good,” which is to say the Kashpaws look down on them as inferior, and this has important implications in the story since both June and Lipsha are Morrisseys.
June had been a terrible mother, and even Eli, who was always “crazy about his little girl,” admitted it. Despite this, however, Albertine thinks June was the best aunt. June always had gum in her purse, and she talked to Albertine like an adult, not a kid. June and Gordie’s marriage was always rocky, and she frequently ran off. She worked odd jobs, and even studied to be a beautician, but June never made anything work for very long. She even once showed up to a job drunk and was promptly fired. Over time, June “broke, little by little.” Albertine knows all about the kind of cowboys in towns like Williston, near where June’s body had been found. Men like that think Native American women like June are “nothing but an easy night.”
Albertine’s comment that June is a terrible mother suggests that June’s family expects her to be a good mother simply because she is a woman. Acceptable roles for women, especially Native women, are narrowly defined and usually confined to the domestic sphere within the novel, but June refuses to occupy this space. Albertine seems to know June’s death wasn’t exactly natural. While Andy did not technically kill June, he presumably thought she was “an easy night,” and this assumption led to June’s death. The fact that June “broke, little by little” again implies a certain fragility despite her obvious strength, and Eli’s unflinching love for June—his adoptive daughter—suggests that family is more than blood ties.
Albertine is furious with Zelda for not telling her sooner about June’s death. Albertine thinks that her mother should have joined the Sacred Heart Convent like she wanted to in the first place, but Zelda had married Swede Johnson, a white man, and had Albertine instead. Swede joined the army not long after marrying Zelda and went AWOL during boot camp; no one has seen him since. Even though Albertine doesn’t particularly want to see her mother, she decides to go home.
Zelda’s interest in joining the Sacred Heart Convent as a young girl reflects the strong influence of Christianity in her life. Zelda is Native American, yet being an authentic Native American in modernity often means having religious beliefs that reflect both Christianity and Native spirituality. Albertine’s identity as part Native, part European (her father’s name is Swede because he is Swedish) suggests that Native people are often a mix of both cultures as well.
Zelda lives on the very edge of the reservation with her new husband, but the land Albertine grew up on belongs to her grandparents, Marie and Nector, and it was allotted to them back “when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers.” The government’s policy for land allotment was ridiculous, Albertine thinks, and much of it has since been sold to white people. The main house, where all of Nector and Marie’s children were raised, is now maintained by Albertine’s Aunt Aurelia, her mother’s sister.
Love Medicine dispels many Native American myths and stereotypes, one being that Native Americans were traditionally farmers. Popular images of indigenous people often depicts them as farmers (such as in portrayals of Thanksgiving), but most were not. Most were hunters and gatherers that were forced by the government to become farmers when their ancestral lands were taken, like Albertine’s family. This passage also reflects the deep family connections within Native culture, as the Kashpaws’ home is handed down from generation to generation.
Arriving at the main house, Albertine enters the kitchen and finds Aurelia and Zelda busy cooking. They welcome Albertine warmly without stopping their work, and Zelda hands her a jar of pickles, telling her to dice them. Zelda asks Albertine if she has met any “marriageable boys” in Fargo, and Albertine says she hasn’t. Albertine knows that by marriageable, her mother means “Catholic.”
Domestic work is pushed onto Albertine the minute she enters the room—Zelda doesn’t even stop to hug her—which implies Albertine is expected to do such gendered work, and this further confines Albertine to this narrow role. Zelda’s belief that only Catholic boys are “marriageable” again reflects the central importance of Christianity in her life.
Zelda stops working. She asks Albertine if she plans on being “a career girl.” Why not? Albertine asks her mother, pointing out that Zelda has always worked. Suddenly, a red Firebird pulls up outside. It is June’s son, King; his wife, Lynette; and their son King, Jr. Both Marie and Nector are also crammed into the car’s tiny backseat, along with several cases of beer. “There’s that white girl,” Zelda says. Aurelia reminds her sister that Zelda was once married to a Swedish man. Zelda admits that this is true, but she learned her lesson.
Zelda seems dismayed that Albertine does not want to pursue a domestic life and would rather be “a career girl,” which reflects societal assumptions that women should remain in the home. Zelda is a woman herself and has worked for most her life, but for some reason she still expects Albertine to fill a domestic role. Zelda’s dislike for Lynette because she is white is evidence of the racism and forced assimilation Zelda has had to endure as a Native American. She is constantly oppressed by white people—both by the government who stole her land and culture, and by her husband who abandoned her with an infant.
As everyone files out of King’s car, Albertine marvels at how old her grandfather, Nector, looks. Albertine watches Lynette climb out of the car with her diaper bag and thinks about June. June had always told Albertine things she probably shouldn’t have when Albertine was a child, like how Uncle Gordie had often hit her with the “flat of his hand.” Gordie “hit me but good,” June had said.
That Albertine thinks of June’s stories of abuse when Lynette gets out of the car suggests that Albertine suspects that King abuses Lynette, just like Gordie abused June. This not only draws attention to violence against women but implies that it often repeats generation to generation.
Outside the house, Nector looks around. He says that the place looks familiar, and Marie laughs. It is his house, she says. Each time he comes to the house now, it is like his first time. The land had been allotted to Nector’s mother, Rushes Bear, when Nector was just a child, and his brother, Eli, still lives on the opposite end of the allotment, but Nector remembers none of this. Rushes Bear had sent Nector to the government school, but she had hidden Eli from them. Now, Eli’s mind is still in top shape, but Nector’s mind has checked out.
Nector’s appears to be a defense mechanism of sorts. Erdrich implies that Nector had terrible experiences at the residential school, and his memory has failed as a way to protect himself from them. The history of residential schools in America is exceedingly dark. Children were not only forcibly taken from their families and culture, but were also neglected and abused physically, mentally, and sexually. Eli did not go to the school; thus, he did not have the same terrible experiences and has retained his memory.
In his younger years, Nector had been a big part of tribal government. He had schools built, and even a factory, and he was responsible for saving their reservation land from a policy known as “termination.” Nector even went to Washington once to meet with the government there, but that man is long gone now. As Albertine watches her grandfather discover his childhood home again for the first time, she thinks about King, Jr., who is happy because he doesn’t yet have a memory, while Grandpa Nector is happy because he has lost his memory.
The Indian termination policy was a policy of the United States government from the 1940s-1960s. The policy was another form of forced assimilation, and it sought to terminate the sovereignty of Native tribes, thereby making each indigenous person an American citizen like all nonindigenous people. Under this policy, Native people were no longer exempt from state and federal taxes, and their reservations and tribes were disbanded, forcing them to move to mainstream society. Nector saved his tribe and land from such a fate, which reflects his importance to both within his tribe and family.
Inside the house, Marie takes a ham from a can and, gently patting it, places it carefully in the oven. Zelda and Aurelia smile; they can remember when they had to trade for meat or slaughter their own. Zelda asks Marie if being in the kitchen with everyone reminds her of when they were younger. Marie comments that the kids were never really any trouble, except for the time they all tried to hang June in a tree out back. They had all been playing “cowboys and Indians” and had strung June from the tree when Zelda came running into the house to tell Marie.
This passage is further evidence of Native American assimilation. Marie’s life has changed significantly over the years because of European settlers. Traditional ways of living—trading and slaughtering meat, for example—have been replaced by European ways and culture, like meat in a can. The game of “cowboys and Indians” reflects the widespread racism against indigenous people in American society. The killing of Native Americans by “cowboys” (i.e., white men) is so common in popular entertainment that the children have turned it into a game.
Aurelia claims they never would have really hanged June, but Zelda doesn’t seem so sure. Marie remembers that June wasn’t scared in the least, and she had made sure everyone knew it. Outside, King revs the Firebird’s engine. Zelda remarks that the car has a tape deck, which costs extra. King is expecting to go pick up Eli, but both Zelda and Aurelia know Eli won’t ride in the car. Confused, Albertine asks why. June’s death has been deemed of natural causes, so her insurance money paid out, and King bought the car. Eli isn’t happy about it, Zelda says, and won’t ride in the car because it reminds him of June. King revs the engine again and peels out of the driveway.
June suggests that her siblings would have truly hurt June had Marie not intervened. This treatment suggests that June was an outcast among the other children. June was not Marie’s biological child (although Marie loved her most), and the other kids treated her badly because of it. King sees the Firebird as his birthright as June’s “real” son, but Lipsha claims this birthright by the end of the novel.
Hours later, Zelda wonders where King and Eli are. They are probably out joyriding, she says, remarking again on Lynette. “That white girl,” Zelda claims, “won’t keep King long.” Aurelia looks to her sister, exasperated. Who cares if Lynette is white, Aurelia says. After all, Albertine’s father, Swede, was white, too. “My girl’s an Indian,” Zelda says. Aurelia nods, agreeing completely.
Zelda is so resentful of white people, who have long oppressed her and her people in the past, that she refuses to see Aurelia’s point. Zelda is quick to disregard Albertine’s white father, but Erdrich ultimately argues that authentic Native people often have European ancestry as well. Albertine is Native largely because she lives a Native life with Native culture, not because her blood is entirely Native.
When King finally comes back, it is nearly dark. Lynette gets out of the car, her eyes “watery and red.” She adjusts her blouse, which is a “dark violet bruised color,” and goes in the house to check on King, Jr. Moments later, Gordie Kashpaw pulls in the driveway in his old truck with Eli next to him. Gordie is obviously drunk, and he circles the old Chevy twice around the driveway before he parks. Eli gets out and goes in the house. Next to Eli, Nector looks even older and “paler,” and he doesn’t recognize Eli as his brother.
Lynette’s eyes are “watery and red” because she has obviously been fighting with King, and her shirt, a “dark violet bruised color” reflects the domestic abuse she’s implied to be suffering at King’s hands. As it turns out, Eli did refuse to ride in the Firebird, and he rides instead with Gordie. Next to Eli, who has led a more traditional Native lifestyle, Nector looks “pale,” which suggests Nector is more assimilated to white culture than Eli is.
June’s gravestone has just recently been erected, and Zelda, Aurelia, and Marie want to go see it before it gets too dark. As the women leave, Marie stops and tells Albertine to hang the laundry and keep an eye on things. There is plenty of food if anyone wants to eat, she says, but Albertine is not to let anyone touch the pies they have baked for the following day. “They can eat!” Marie yells to Albertine again on her way out. “But save them pies!”
Once again, Albertine is expected to do domestic chores. Albertine doesn’t live there, and it likely it isn’t even her laundry, but she is expected to do these tasks anyway. Marie’s warning to save the pies foreshadows what is to come when King assaults Lynette and wrecks the pies in the process.