Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Specifically, it will make a claim about the connection between food and conflict in the novel, then support the claim with evidence from the book and personal analysis and interpretation. Food is a very important element in "Love Medicine," and much of the food references in the novel also revolve around conflict, which is a central theme in the novel. Food and conflict often go hand in "real" life, and the characters in the novel rely on food when times get tough.
"Love Medicine" is an interesting novel that blends cultures, thoughts, and the beauty of the land into a haunting novel that is difficult to put down. The novel opens with June, and an image of colored Easter eggs in a bar. They represent June's conflict within herself, and her pull toward home, but a home that holds nothing for her. She is hungry for food, but she is hungrier to find herself, and she cannot, which is why she simply walks "home" after the encounter in the truck. June is like many Native Americans, caught between two worlds and really at home in neither.
All throughout the book, the women cook, talk about food, and create dishes for comfort and for the love of food. When Albertine comes home, her mother and aunt are baking pies, and they immediately greet her and put her to work chopping pickles. The food here represents the very real conflict between Albertine and her mother. Her mother cannot acknowledge her, or apologize for not telling her about June's funeral, and so, the food serves as a distraction and helps maintain the conflict and the gap between mother and child. When Albertine tries to carefully mend the pies, she is really trying to mend the relationship between herself and her mother, as well as the many unhealthy relationships in the family. Her family is filled with conflict and anger, and they often take it out on the food, too, just as they did by smashing the pies that were so important to her mother and her aunt.
Marie's story is also filled with food. She is wounded by the nun while baking bread, and she recognizes that the nun has an eating disorder, and that is part of her penance to God. One reviewer of the novel notes, "In literature as in life, [ ... ] eating disorders 'present the stage for a conflict grounded on desire and power in which the individual process of identity formation clashes with and rebels against traditional notions of what constitutes a human being" (Morace 46). Thus, when Marie gains power over the nun, she gains knowledge about herself as well, and questions her devotion to the woman whose love she craved. There is great conflict in the relationship between the two -- the relationship that sets Marie free of the convent and on to a new life with her husband Nector.
To Lulu, food and sex are intertwined. At one point in the novel she says, "I want to grind men's bones to drink in my night tea. I want to enter them the way their hot shadows fold into their bodies in full sunlight. I want to be their food, their harmful drink, to taste men like stilled jam at the back of my tongue" (Erdrich 82). Food and sex are Lulu's conflict, because Lulu rarely seems to get enough of either. Lulu always wants to be "full," whether it is full of men, or full of food. Near the end of the book the author writes, "She [Lulu] would 'open . . . And let everything inside' [ ... ] so that after a while she 'would be full' (Erdrich 276-277). Even more importantly, the men she is with see her as some kind of candy they can gobble up, and this creates the conflict between Lulu and her men. They see her as a treat, and she uses them to fill herself up and make her whole. They have two very different ideas about what they want from love, and that may be one reason Lulu flits constantly from man to man, like a bee flits to honey. She cannot find the man who will ever fill her enough, and when she does, she cannot have him, and so, food is her "sex" when sex and men are unavailable.
Food is an important element in just about everyone's life at one point or another, and the author weaves food and its preparation throughout the novel. She does it quite easily, so that the reader often does not notice it at first, but at some of the most crucial happenings in the book, there is always food. Marie dreams of eating potatoes and onions when she gives birth to her second daughter, and many of the characters think about food or prepare food during crucial scenes. Another critic notes, "The family celebrations are the occasions for feasting, and in Erdrich's detailed descriptions of various dishes and their preparation, readers find variations played out on yet another of the novel's central images -- that of cookery and food" (Stookey 128). When Marie discovers Nector's letter, she peels a mountain of potatoes. She covers up the conflict by immersing herself in a common task, and one that involves food. Again, the theme of food and conflict is foremost in the scene. Marie cannot admit even to herself that Nector has left her, and so, she acts as if nothing has happened, and replaces the letter under the salt tin, rather than the sugar. The symbolism is clear. Sugar and salt, sweet, and tart, their relationship has been both. She will not let him go, so she holds on to him without ever saying anything, but the symbolism of the salt and sugar will never go away.
All of the characters in this novel are linked to each other, and that is part of the conflict. They are members of the same family, friends of the family, or part of the overall "Indian" family. Food draws them together, and many scenes in the book portray the family sitting down and eating together, or not eating together. In the next to last story, "Lyman's Luck," the family is pulled apart, and the son eats cereal in front of the television set while the father plays poker in the kitchen. This represents the conflict between the white man's ways and the Native American ways. The father is trying to remain sober, and raising his son in the city, where he calls himself "Howard" and watches television, instead of growing up on the reservation and learning to hunt, fish, and understand the land. His eating the white man's cereal the "wrong" way is symbolic in what he is eating, as well as how he is eating it. On the reservation, Marie still cans her own food, and is quite involved in creating sustenance, even when she moves to the Senior Citizen's home. Food keeps her sane, and keeps her life ordered and "normal." Lulu uses food as a reminder of sex and to make her feel whole, and Albertine uses food to build a bridge and yet drive a wedge between her mother, Marie's daughter Zelda. Interestingly, while the women are all tied to food and cooking, the men are not. Food does not carry the same symbolism for them, except for Nector, who sees Lulu as sweet as candy. The men have other concerns, most of them alcohol instead of food. The contrast is important, because it symbolizes the females as the nurturers and the strong ones in the story, and the males as the weak ones who need nurturing. The exceptions are Albertine, who drinks, and June, who drinks to excess,…