Despite being largely relegated to traditional domestic roles within Love Medicine, the Native American women in Louise Erdrich’s novel refuse to resign themselves to a social position that is inferior to that of men. Lulu Lamartine, for instance, won’t hide her nontraditional lifestyle, which includes multiple husbands and several affairs. Lulu has nine children from nearly as many men, and while others on the reservation try to brand her a whore, she absolutely refuses to apologize for the choices she has made. Marie, too, is the formidable matriarch of the Kashpaw family, and though she may take on the traditional roles of wife and mother, she remains in complete control of her life and family, even in spite of Nector’s betrayal and infidelity. While the women of Love Medicine are undeniably strong, several are still forced to endure the violence of men, an injustice to which Erdrich repeatedly draws attention. Through a representation of women that highlights both their power and their vulnerability, Erdrich sheds light on the prevalence of violence against indigenous women in American society while also highlighting their profound and undying strength. In this way, Erdrich effectively rejects sexist assumptions of women as the weaker sex, even though they face unrelenting abuse and oppression.
Several of Erdrich’s female characters are depicted in ways that challenge popular assumptions of the weakness of women, instead demonstrating that women are just as strong as men. Marie’s mother-in-law, Rushes Bear, is represented as a “passionate, power-hungry woman,” and Lulu, who is Rushes Bear’s niece, respects this about the older woman. However, Lulu never forgets “how hard it was to live beneath the stones of [Rushes Bear’s] will.” Despite her traditional role as a woman in Native culture, Rushes Bear is a force to be reckoned with, and she intimidates even the strongest women and men. Lulu herself is incredibly strong, and after the local tribal government tries to kick her off her late husband Henry’s land for squatting, she adamantly refuses to leave, even after her house is burnt to the ground. Lulu remains on the land in a tin shack with her nine children until the tribe finally agrees to build her a new house, even better than the old one. “I accepted their restitution,” Lulu says of her new home, highlighting her own power over the men of the tribal council. Albertine, Marie’s granddaughter, moves to Fargo to attend nursing school, but by the end of the novel, she changes her mind. Albertine decides that being a nurse is “not enough for her,” so she is determined to become a doctor. Albertine abandons her initial plans of nursing, a traditionally female profession, in favor of becoming a doctor, which historically has been considered a more masculine job. Like Lulu and Rushes Bear, Albertine refuses to be confined by her gender.
Despite the undeniable strength of the women in Love Medicine, many female characters are subjected to domestic abuse and violence, through which Erdrich draws attention to the disproportionate amount of violence endured by Native American women. Early in the novel, Albertine remembers her Aunt June telling her about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Gordie. “He used the flat of his hand,” June would say. “He hit me good.” Though the Anishinaabe are characterized by their feisty women, it’s clear that some of these women are also subject to abuse which threatens to undermine their strength. Sadly, Albertine sees this same pattern of abuse manifest in June’s son, King, and his own marriage to his wife, Lynette. Albertine often suspects that King beats Lynette due to her multiple bruises and cuts, and Albertine’s suspicions are confirmed the day she walks into her mother’s kitchen and finds King trying to drown Lynette in a “sink of cold dishwater.” This turn of events suggests not only the prevalence of abuse in Native communities, but its tendency to occur from generation to generation. King’s half-brother, Lipsha, also suspects King of abusing Lynette, and his suspicions are likewise confirmed at the end of the novel when he discovers Lynette’s swollen lip. King and Lynette’s life seems so depressing to Lipsha, but he does notice “a couple of attempts at doing something to reclaim this twilight zone.” Plants and cactuses decorate the apartment, as well as velvet rugs depicting dogs playing a game of cards. Despite the bleakness of Lynette’s existence as King’s battered wife, she adamantly refuses to fully submit to his violence and still tries to salvage some small aspects of her life.
Even in light of the widespread abuse of women within the Native American community, the women of Love Medicine remain a powerful force and often dominate the men in their lives. In this way, Erdrich demonstrates the dual strength and vulnerability of women, but ultimately argues that women won’t be overpowered by men.
Female Oppression and Strength ThemeTracker
Female Oppression and Strength Quotes in Love Medicine
Far from home, living in a white woman’s basement, that letter made me feel buried, too. I opened the envelope and read the words. I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section on “Patient Abuse.” There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief.
Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a rattling thicket of bones. She saw how he’d woven his own crown of thorns. She saw how although he was not worthy he’d jammed this relief on his brow. Her eyes stared into some hidden place but blocked him out. Flat black. He did not understand what he was going to do. He bent, out of her gaze, and groped beneath the front seat for the tire iron, a flat-edged crowbar thick as a child’s wrist.
And so when they tell you that I was heartless, a shameless man-chaser, don’t ever forget this: I loved what I saw. And yes, it is true that I’ve done all the things they say. That’s not what gets them. What aggravates them is I’ve never shed one solitary tear. I’m not sorry. That’s unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry.