The Matriarchs of Love Medicine: An Essay on Louise Erdrich’s Novel

American journalist Dorothy Thompson once noted that, “A little more matriarchy is what the world needs.” Judging from her novel Love Medicine, perhaps Louise Erdrich would agree. In Love Medicine, she presents two families of the Chippewa tribe. Although the Chippewa tribe seems to be male dominated, as it is the men who run the tribal council, both of the families in the story are held together by a strong matriarchal figure. One of the two mothers, Marie Kashpaw, is married to the chairman of the tribe, and she proudly admits, “He is what he is because I made him,” and her children know that it is true (154). The other mother, Lulu Lamartine, has not made much of any of her many husbands, but runs her family with equal strength. Despite the fact that they have lived very different lives, Marie and Lulu have a great deal in common. They are both very prideful women who are strong matriarchal figures; they are the glue holding not only their families together, but also the community.

Marie and Lulu are both very prideful women, although each takes pride in different things. Marie finds pride in the fact that she has shed the Lazarre name and history, and in her family’s position in the tribe. When Marie’s parents come to drop off June, Marie refers to them as “the two drunk ones” labeling her mother as, “the old drunk woman who I didn’t claim as my mother anymore” (85). She has made something of herself that is above what was expected of a Lazarre; she has become a strong and respected matriarch. Marie is keenly aware of this and draws strength from her pride in what she has become. When she goes to visit the dieing nun who had known her in her youth, she feels confident because, “by now I was solid class. Nector was tribal chairman. My children were well behaved, and they were educated too” (148). To Marie, her position as Nector’s wife and the respected mother of many children and foster children is the most important thing in her life, even more important than love, which is why she decides to stay with Nector, never mentioning the letter in which he admits to have “found true love with [Lulu]” (140). Being known as a Kashpaw, Nector’s wife, means more to Marie than Nector’s love and devotion.

Lulu is also very proud of the person that she is, although it has nothing to do with how she is viewed in society. She is not the wife of a prominent person in the tribe; in fact she is viewed by most as a slut. However, unlike Marie, Lulu does not let what other people think affect her self-worth. Throughout her life, she has consistently done whatever she wants without concern for how others will view her actions. Regardless of how the community views her family, Lulu has raised a tight bunch and she takes great pride in her family and in being the strong matriarch that she knows she is. One of her husbands, Bev Lamartine, notes that “Lulu managed to make the younger boys obey perfectly, while the older ones adored her to the point that they did not tolerate anything less from anyone else.” Although her children are aware of the fact that they all have different fathers, and that their family is not respected in the community, Lulu has been such a good mother that they adore her. Even though Lulu has always been very private about the paternity of her children, when her family’s home is in jeopardy, she is willing to name each and every one of the men who fathered her bastard children. She is willing to cause great upset among the community, hitting “the tribe with a fistful of paternity suits that would make their heads spin” (285), if it means maintaining her family’s homestead, because Lulu’s pride and strength comes from her ability to consistently uphold her home and family.

While Marie found her strength in her position as Nector’s wife, and Lulu found hers in her eight sons, the women are independently strong individuals as well; men have merely helped them create the lives they wanted. As Lyman Lamartine observes of both Marie and Lulu, “Men, it seemed, from their long-lived height, had been pawns in their lives by which they worked out large destinies” (312). Both Marie and Lulu are such strong women, that when they join together they are a force to be reckoned with. The community seems to latch onto the strength of these two women, and when they fall apart, everyone else goes with them.

Towards the end of the novel, Lipsha proudly tells Gerry about how Lulu, along with Marie, “testified for Chippewa claims and that people were starting to talk about her knowledge as an old-time traditional” (363). Lulu’s reputation as the flirt of the tribe is overshadowed by the respect that she has gained, and she is acknowledged as an “old-time traditional,” primarily because the community has noted her strength in raising her family. Before the tomahawk factory is built, the two women had “developed strong and hotheaded followings” among many of the people of the community (303), and when the factory opens the women have an unofficial sort of management in the factory, just due to the respect of the employees. Even Lyman, the actual manager of the factory, somewhat heeds his mother’s advice on who to hire, and acknowledges that the placement of Marie and Lulu in the factory is “a delicate decision,” placing their beading table in a spot “which overlooked the entire workplace” (311). When the two women blow up at each other and then completely undermine Lyman’s authority as the boss, it causes complete havoc in the factory, resulting in the destruction of the factory.

Symbolically, the factory is the community, and its destruction represents how the community becomes unglued when Marie and Lulu fail to maintain their composure. Truly Marie and Lulu’s matriarchy extends much further than their families; it extends to all of the community surrounding them.

Works Cited
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

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