LaRose by Louise Erdrich (2016) Harper (2016) 371 pp
As a fan of Louise Erdrich, I was very happy to see her get a lot of attention a few years ago when her book The Round House was picking up literary prizes. Unfortunately, I don’t consider The Round House anywhere near her best novel, and I was a bit worried that perhaps she’d never quite hit the symphonic bliss of novels like The Plague of Doves. The Round House just never quite came together for me, and, worse, it felt like a poor attempt to harmonize her multiple voices. But when I read the first few pages of LaRose I knew that I had worried needlessly. Erdrich is one of America’s great authors, and LaRose is one of her best novels.
When LaRose begins, “the worst thing possible” happens in an Ojibwa community. While hunting a deer he’s been tracking for a season, the careful and controlled Landreaux Iron accidentally shoots and kills his neighbors five-year-old son, Dusty. Erdrich has such control over her story and her tone that we feel we know Landreaux and are devastated when, after just two paragraphs, his life is irrevocably changed because he’s irrevocably, if accidentally, taken someone else’s.
Nearly without transition, we watch the boy’s mother wordlessly protest against what she knows has happened:
Landreaux didn’t touch the boy’s body. He dropped his rifle and ran through the woods to the door of the Ravich house, a tan ranch with a picture window and a deck. When Nola opened the door and saw Landreaux trying to utter her son’s name, she went down on her knees and pointed upstairs, where he was — but wasn’t. She had just checked, found him gone, and was coming out to search fro him when she heard the shot.
Seeking for some way to do something that might make some amends, Landreaux and his wife are devastated when they stumble upon the answer in the traditions of their ancestors: they must give their own young son to the Ravich family. They do not make this decision lightly, but such is the state of their grief and desire to erase the event that they proceed, dropping the child off at the home of neighbors who, right then, would much rather Landreaux were dead or had never existed. The boy’s first question when Dusty’s father opens the door: “Where’s Dusty?” After asking “What do you want?” much more rudely than he ever would have, Landreaux and his wife simply answer: “Our son will be your son now.”
Landreaux put the small suitcase on the floor. Emma line was shredding apart. She put the other bag down in the entry and looked away.
They had to tell him what they meant, Our son will be your son, and tell him again.
Peter’s jaw fell, gaping and stricken.
No, he said, I’ve never heard of such a thing.
It’s the old way, said Landreaux. He said it very quickly, got the words out yet again. There was a lot more to their decision, but he could no longer speak.
It may sound terrible to our modern ears. How can this possibly make things right? And what about the living child? Fascinatingly, these two families are not living in some ancient tradition. This story takes place in 1999, and the Raviches are as shocked and resistant as we might expect — almost. They do, after all, accept the child into their home, shocked by their own loss, shocked at what seems like a poor substitute, they are both indignant by the gesture and yet drawn to the terrified, disoriented child, whose “presence was both comforting and unnerving.”
Thus begins a wrenching examination of grief, anger, and some kind of terrible comfort. LaRose is about so much more, though.
The boy who is given to the Ravich family is named LaRose. Yes, it is a traditionally female name in Landreaux’s family (and anywhere else), and each LaRose who had come before had been female. While it was tempting to give up on the tradition when LaRose was born, Landreaux and Emmaline are unable to because it was as if he was born LaRose. As Erdrich takes us through the painful life of this LaRose, she also steps back and looks at the other LaRoses who had come before, women who, despite life-times of hardships and injustice, were known for their skills in healing.
If that seems like a simple metaphor — LaRose as a healer of this current grief — Erdrich is not that simplistic. The past LaRoses didn’t manage to take away pain, and that is not what our LaRose is going to do. The community is in need of healing, sure, but it’s a rich community again, populated by people we love and hate at the same time, characters who have pasts that Erdrich gives palpable weight in only a few sentences. As personal as Dusty’s death is to those closest, it is also a communal event, one that can even be used to some advantage if someone wants to go there . . . someone does.
The terrors that Erdrich explores with nuance and courage are sadly relevant to the world today, a world that would probably rather Erdrich’s rich book were easily categorized tightly as a book about Native Americans, particularly those of generations gone that can be brushed aside with something like, “It’s terrible, but it’s all in the past.” This is a very human book, hardly limited to the Ojibwe community and the history of these families. These events reverberate. Because she is strong and a master, Erdrich’s book reverberates as well.