[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On two complementary roles of the opening story in a devastating, beautiful cycle.
Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (originally published in 1984 and revised and expanded in 1993) opens with a complex, multi-part short story, “The World’s Greatest Fisherman” (note that, like many of the stories/chapters in Erdrich’s book and most short story cycles, “World’s” was initially published separately in the magazine version at that link). “World’s” focuses first on a particular moment, the last day and death of one character, June Kashpaw, as described by a third-person narrator; then its second through fourth sections feature the first-person narration of another character (June’s niece Albertine Johnson) portraying what the aftermath of that moment reveals about the Kashpaw family and Ojibwe (Chippewa) reservation that will be focal points throughout Love Medicine. In all those ways, “World’s” serves as a framing story for the book that follows—but it also serves two other, complex and resonant roles in Erdrich’s text.
For one thing, “World’s” helps us understand the chronological shifts that comprise Erdrich’s structure. While this opening story is set in 1981, roughly the book’s present, the next three stories are set in 1934, the earliest moment on which it will focus; the remainder of the book gradually moves back up to the present, culminating in a group of stories set later in the 80s than “World’s.” There are many ways we might analyze this structural choice, but I would link it to a central thread of “World’s”: Albertine’s return to her reservation home (she is studying nursing at a college in Fargo) and the questions and conversations about family histories and identities that she finds and participates in there. Given that the three 1934 stories are narrated by Albertine’s grandparents Marie and Nector (the first two of the stories) and their peer and fellow family matriarch Lulu (the third story), it’s fair to say that these stories—and thus in a real sense the rest of the book—represent direct responses to such family history questions, opportunities for these individuals to express their identities, relationships, and understandings of the families and communities of which they’re part.
The book’s structure culminates in another four-part story, “Crossing the Water.” Like “World’s,” “Crossing” has plenty to do on its own terms, such as introducing one final first-person narrator (young King “Howard” Kashpaw, a fourth generation character who despite being five years old has plenty to add to the book’s narratives) and culminating the self-discovery arc of another (Lipsha Morrissey, who learns of and meets his father Gerry for the first time). But since Lipsha is June’s son (another fact he has learned in the course of the book and comes to understand fully here), and since he ends the story driving back to his reservation home in a car that the family metonymically associates with June (it was purchased with her life insurance payout), Lipsha and “Crossing” also echo and complement Albertine and “World’s” and their framing roles in Love Medicine. Taken together, these two stories frame the book’s multi-generational family histories through the lens of two of its youngest characters, both separate from the reservation and its Ojibwe community and culture yet still deeply influenced and even inspired by them. I can think of few better arguments for the unique value of a short story cycle than the role that Love Medicine’s individual opening story plays in framing these structural, perspectival, and thematic elements.
Next cycle tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?
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