LaRose, Louise Erdrich, Harper, 2016, 372 pp
I have been reading Louise Erdrich for over a decade. She has been writing novels for over three decades. She never lets me down. The new novel, set in familiar territory, the remaining Ojibwe lands of North Dakota, is engaged in spanning: generations, cultures, the spiritual world, and the moral universe. If that sounds deep, it is but her dazzling prose and sophisticated plotting create a novel that is quite impossible to put down.
LaRose is a young boy, descended from at least five generations of Native American women, all of whom were named LaRose and employed courage as well as Ojibwe skills and spiritual practice in the face of violence and oppression. Throughout the course of the novel this heritage reveals and builds the character of a remarkable being, LaRose, who spans every gulf between the troubles in his family.
One morning, Landreaux Iron is out hunting and accidentally shoots his young nephew Dusty. Emmaline Iron is half-sister to Dusty’s mother Nola; Dusty’s father Peter is Landreaux’s best friend. Tragedy, loss, and near insanity invade the lives of these two families. The tribal police and county coroner rule the death an accident but Landreaux’s guilt sends him to the sweat lodge with Emmaline to work out what amends will satisfy the spirits. They decide to give their five-year-old son LaRose to Peter and Nola as atonement for and replacement of their lost son Dusty.
As Erdrich continues to spin this desperate tale, the past comes rushing in to complicate the already delicate relations between Emmaline and Nola, between Landreaux and his mortal enemy, the substance abusing Romeo, between Native American and White culture. In a situation as tangled as a Gordian Knot, she never lets the reader become lost but builds suspense and dread. You feel the emotions of each character while you become immersed in the history of what the American settlers and government have wrought on the natives of the country we conquered. In the end, you are left marveling at the intricacies of the whole sorry situation.
Often in her novels, Louise Erdrich posits that a child will leap across all these chasms and bring about a healing resolution. LaRose is that child here. From the bewilderment caused by having to leave his own loving parents and siblings to live with a woman deranged by grief and a young female cousin raging against her bitter mother, he grows into a wise and funny and brave young dude. Eventually, Emmaline wants LaRose back, so he begins to live in alternate weeks with each family. His increasing love for the new family and a deep loyalty to his birth family bring about an untangling of the many knots of distrust, betrayal, and loss of identity from which the adults suffer. Basically, the kids save the day.
Louise Erdrich writes stories no one else is telling these days. Her books are a study in the ways a conquered people endure living within a different civilization. Although that adjustment has been the problem of millions of people throughout history, the plight of the Native American is not often considered in 21st century America. She can conjure up healing and resolution as a realistic option without falling prey to sentimentalism. She can imagine people who have the humanity to build a hopeful future without festering in past bitterness, even as she reveals the disintegration of self, caused by culture clash. She is a LaRose herself.
Note: This review was originally published at Litbreak Magazine.
(LaRose is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)