October 27, 2009KR BlogKR

LOVE MEDICINE: Week Five

So we’ve come to the last installments of our online discussion of Louise Erdrich’s LOVE MEDICINE. I’ve enjoyed it–especially many of the thoughtful and insightful responses. This is the first time we’ve undertaken such a project, and I’d really welcome your thoughts, both about LOVE MEDICINE and about the entire notion of an online literary discussion. We might very well do more.

Today, I’m going to concentrate on the section/story “Resurrection,” which is set, mostly, in 1982. It comes toward the end of the novel, and it extends across the entire trajectory, with Marie’s memories from her childhood to the time now with Nector gone and her oldest son, Gordie, wild and wasted by drink. Such a title, “Resurrection,” is obviously loaded–but with what significance? Sincere or parodic? We won’t know until the end, but it surely is in the back of a reader’s mind throughout.

The story opens with Marie obsessively cleaning and ordering her house, now that Nector is gone. She is preparing for life without him and, clearly, for her own passing as well. Unexpectedly, Gordie walks into her yard. He is drunk, sick, almost lost to himself:

He swayed, arms close to his sides, a doll with weighted feet. The circle of his motion grew rounder and wider until in one movement he uprooted himself and sprawled headlong, diving forward to the margin of spent grass that Marie cultivated with the leavings of her kitchen water.

Gordie has come full circle, back to his beginnings, back to his mother.

“He slept like a sick child, a thin dog, like he was dead.” And Marie leaves him where he falls, only going out to cover him from the afternoon chill:

She unfolded a quilt cut and stitched from woolen clothing too tattered to repair. Each square was tacked down with a knotted piece of yarn. The quilt was brown, mustard yellow, all shades of green. Looking at it, Marie recognized the first coat she had bought Gordie, a faint, tough gray patch, and the blanket he had brought home from the army. There was the plaid of her husband’s jacket. A thick skirt. A baby blanket half turned to lace by summer moths. Two old blue pants legs.

I love the image of this quilt. It is a metaphor of the novel itself, bits and pieces of history and story stitched together without a clear pattern and yet providing a kind of meaning through accretion.

As we know by now, nothing in this novel is going to be easy or cheaply sentimental. Gordie may have come home, but what he wants is more drink. And Marie may be willing to care for him, but she’s also willing to wrestle him almost to the death. In fact, when he reaches to grab her, she cuts his hand with a paring knife: “We match now! Suddenly he blurted words out, laughing, thinking of the raised scar in the center of his mother’s hand, thinking of how he’d always felt it when she smoothed her hand over his face.”

Yes, the two, mother and son, do match. And their scars carry across time, just as does the quilt.

If I said a moment ago that nothing in the novel is cheaply sentimental, we must nonetheless be surprised by what comes now as Gordie hallucinates or dreams or travels beyond himself: an extended memory of his running away with June to get married and to honeymoon at an all-but-abandoned motel next to a cool and welcoming lake.

That night they sat on the dock, holding hands. The moon rose. They watched until finally it seemed clear they were much too at peace and tired to do anything but sleep. June shrugged. Side by side, they walked the little path to the cabin, went in, and lay down without speaking. They kissed each other’s hands and then folded them together and lay that way, like two people carved on stone caskets, staring up at the starless ceiling.

There’s no evidence that we are intended to mock or doubt the truthfulness of this memory. Indeed, it does much to explain Gordie’s loyalty to June across decades of betrayal and, ultimately, to the trajectory of self-destruction that he has launched upon since her death. Yet there is perhaps no other moment of such unqualified love, connection, peacefulness in the entire novel as in this memory.

How much harsher, then, is the reality when we switch back to Marie’s point of view. She has momentarily lost track of Gordie’s whereabouts, and now discovers that he has drunk a bottle of Lysol.

He was down on the floor, jumping, his entire body sprung by heels and head. . . . He bounced harder, faster, springing through the soft blue dusk. . . . until, when she lit the kerosene lamp she liked to have at night, he had gone still. She stepped next to him, bent over with the lamp, and smelled the harsh rapture of the Lysol on his breath.

The brilliant use of “rapture” also recalls, resonates with “resurrection,” the story’s title, as we come toward its conclusion. Marie is ready for a final battle with her son, arming herself with an ax, waiting through the night. When her first lamp dies out, Gordie appears in the dark, ready to come at her in search of any kind of alcohol. But she has a second lamp at hand, and he “vanished soundlessly, as if the light wounded or upset him. There was something horrid and gentle about his movements, as if he had lost the clumsy weight of humanness.”

So the conclusion of the story is no neat resolution, but a vision of Marie waiting, of her faith that after three days of drying out he will rise, will be clean, will be resurrected. There is paradox here, to be sure, and no little irony. But I don’t think we are meant to read this either as parody of the Christian resurrection or of its own dramatic moment.

In the meantime, she and her ax will wait to ensure the possibility of Gordie’s recovery.

Gordie was her firstborn. He had lain in her body in the tender fifteenth summer of her life. She had let him out in pain. She would kill him if he got out this time. . . . On the third day he would rise though, she thought. He would rise and walk. She sat firm in her chair and did not let go of the ax.