Book of a Lifetime: Love Medicine, By Louise Erdrich

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The Independent Culture

In 1986, my husband and I went to Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands for Christmas. We ate ice cream under palm trees and swam with exotic fish. But then the weather turned stormy. I passed the rainy days on the lanai, lying in a hammock, reading books, and looking for inspiration. I was a beginning fiction writer and had written a total of three short stories, each with its own first-person voice. I had wrestled with the idea of revising the stories so that they belonged to one family and were told by one voice. But the storylines made that impossible.

About four days in, I received a phone message that my mother had had a heart attack and was in intensive care. I was certain she had died and I was overcome with the colossal regret that I had never had the patience to truly know her. I pledged that if she lived, I would get to know her and even take her to China. A few minutes later, I heard my mother's chirpy voice and knew I would be making good on my pledge. I happily returned to my hammock and cracked open a new book I had bought on the basis of a sticker on its jacket that said it had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book was Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich.

The first chapter opened in a seedy bar on a freezing Easter Sunday in North Dakota, where an alcoholic Chippewa woman named June Kashpaw goes off with a stranger and disappears in snowdrifts. The next chapter is in the voice of June's adoptive mother, Marie, who tells about a time in her girlhood when she is taken into a convent by a nun who believes Marie was seduced by the devil and must be nearly killed to be saved. Then follows Eli Kashpaw, Marie's affable and unfaithful husband. Another chapter is told by Eli's long-time lover, Lulu Nanapush. The imagery is often gothic and magical, and many scenes are comic. The tone of the older stories resembles tall tales, myth, or back-fence gossip, but every one is deeply felt and finely etched with personal truth. Through the layering and interweaving of generational tales, we discover the intricacies of debts, promises and betrayals, as well as love, forgiveness, and the aftermath, which, while uncertain, was always hopeful.

The scare over my mother merged with those stories, and I felt wrenched, uplifted, and emotionally released. I discovered I did not need just one narrator for the book I was writing (The Joy Luck Club). I could have as many as necessary to understand more fully what we mean by love.

Amy Tan's new novel is 'The Valley of Amazement' (Fourth Estate)