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LaRose: A Novel Paperback – April 11, 2017
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“A masterly tale of grief and love…Erdrich never missteps…The recurring miracle of Erdrich’s fiction is that nothing feels miraculous in her novels. She gently insists that there are abiding spirits in this land and alternative ways of living and forgiving that have somehow survived the West’s best efforts to snuff them out.” (Washington Post)
“The rewards of LAROSE lie in the quick unraveling and the slow reconstruction of these lives to a moment when animosities resolve, like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope, into clarity and understanding...Told with constraint and conviction...” (Los Angeles Times)
“You’re going to want to take your time with this book, so lavish in its generational scope, its fierce torrent of wrongs and its luxurious heart. Anyway, you may have no choice, as you fall under the spell of a master… Like Toni Morrison, like Tolstoy, like Steinbeck, Erdrich writes her characters with a helpless love and witnesses them with a supreme absence of judgment…[a] beautiful novel.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Remarkable…As the novel draws to a conclusion, the suspense is ratcheted up, but never at the expense of Erdrich’s reflective power or meditative lyricism…One of Erdrich’s finest achievements.” (Boston Globe)
“Incandescent…Erdrich has always been fascinated by the relationship between revenge and justice, but…LaRose comes down firmly on the side of forgiveness. Can a person do the worst possible thing and still be loved? Erdrich’s answer is a resounding yes.” (New York Times Book Review, front page review)
“...a magnificent, sorrowful tale of justice, retribution, and love.” (Vanity Fair)
“[Erdrich] has laid out one of the most arresting visions of America in one of its most neglected corners, a tableaux on par with Faulkner, a place both perilous and haunted, cursed and blessed.” (Chicago Tribune)
“…[a] sad, wise, funny novel, in which [Erdrich] takes the native storytelling tradition that informs her work and remakes it for the modern world, stitching its tattered remnants into a vibrant living fabric.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“…[a] superb new novel…[Erdrich immerses] us in this remarkable world so thoroughly, so satisfyingly…” (Miami Herald)
“Erdrich’s richly layered tale brings a host of fascinating characters to life as it builds to its haunting resolution.” (People)
From the Back Cover
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux understands he’s hit something else. When he staggers closer, he sees he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.
The youngest child of his best friend, Pete Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola.
LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. Gradually he is allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.
But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.
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LaRose is the third book in a sort of loose trilogy that started with The Plague of Doves, continued with The Round House and now reaches (perhaps) a conclusion with this book. Or perhaps there will be more books set in this community of the Indian reservation, a place where different characters and their ancestors recur and where the past seems a part of the present. As Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." It was true in Faulkner's books and it is true in Erdrich's books, as well.
The title character of this current book is a young boy, five years old when we meet him, who is descended from generations of female LaRoses. He is the fifth in a line of LaRoses in his family and, in time, we meet them all. Soon after the beginning of the story, we go back to 1839 and the first LaRose, who was sold to a white man who raped her. Ultimately, she played a part in his murder, and she achieved a happier future, finding love, romance, marriage, and family. But she also suffered for many years with tuberculosis and when she died in the care of white scientists, those scientists stole her bones and put them on display. Generations of her family fought to have those bones returned to her community.
But back to the fifth LaRose, who is five years old in 1999 when fears of Y2K - remember that? - were abroad in the land.
LaRose's father goes hunting one day and finds the buck that he wishes to kill to feed his family. He sights the animal with his rifle, but as he pulls the trigger, there is a blur between him and the deer and the deer runs away. He has hit something but it wasn't the buck. To his horror, he finds that he has shot a child. It is Dusty, the five-year-old son of his best friend and neighbor and the playmate of his son, LaRose.
LaRose's father is a home health aide, a beloved and respected member of his community, but the question which the book asks is, can a person do the worst thing possible and still be loved? This man has done the worst thing possible in killing an innocent child. Can his community forgive him or will he be ostracized?
He searches for a way to make atonement and finds a possible answer in the traditions of his people. He convinces his wife that they must give their own son to the parents of the dead child as a replacement for that child. (Erdrich notes in her postscript that such transfers did occasionally happen.)
The transfer is made and LaRose becomes a kind of ambassador between the two families, working to alleviate the suffering of both. He has the gift of healing and of seeing into the world where the spirits of the dead dwell, and the act of sharing this special child sets in motion a chain of events that will, in the end, transform the lives of all it touches.
In her last book, The Round House, we saw the workings of revenge/justice. In LaRose, Erdrich explores the other side of that coin - forgiveness. She answers the question of whether a person can still be loved after doing the worst thing possible with a resounding "Yes!"
There are so many rich and wonderful characters in this book. I cannot even attempt to mention them all here, but Erdrich's writing makes splendid use of all those multiple voices in telling this story. We get to know each of them and to respect them as individuals and as part of a larger community that values and cares for them, even the ones with messed up lives, usually ruined by drugs and/or alcohol.
Erdrich brings us her unique perspective of a culture which the larger American society has sought in its worst moments to annihilate. She shows us that that culture is still standing, still nurturing its people, and that we are all richer for it.
The novel then tracks the Iron and Ravich families over the next four years, as they try to adjust to and live with the horrendous event. Over time, they end up sharing LaRose, who turns out to be preternaturally good, mature, and understanding. Much of the novel is devoted to the teenage daughters of the two families -- Snow and Josette Iron and Maggie Ravich. They become a tight trio playing on the reservation high school volleyball team, and their adolescent hijinks and sparkling repartee frequently warm the heart or evoke a smile. The story includes other characters from the reservation, two of whom assume major roles: Father Travis Wozniak, an ex-Marine and survivor of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, who operates as a strict but compassionate moral conscience, but then becomes plagued by a love for Emmaline Iron; and Romeo Puyat, a scrawny, weasely Indian and bottom-feeder, who has a long-standing grievance against Landreaux Iron for which he plots vengeance, even though Landreaux and Emmaline took in and raised his son Hollis, after the mother deserted Romeo.
Along the way, the reader is provided what I assume to be an excellent picture of contemporary (circa 2000) life on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota: A mélange of modern American life and traditional practices. Many adults working odd jobs to make ends meet. Some adults drug- or alcohol-addled. Much abuse of opiates and prescription painkillers. Diabetes. Yet a functioning community.
That community is marvelously brought together and portrayed in the novel's closing chapter. The event is a high-school graduation party for Hollis Landreaux, who is then going into the National Guard. "[T]he yard around the house was crowded with people talking, filling plates with food, laughing, like, well, a bunch of Indians. So many people were eating that all the chairs were taken, then the back steps, the front steps. Towels were laid on top of the cars so girls wouldn't stain their flouncy skirts with car dirt. People stood talking with plates of food in their hands, eating and eating because the food was top-shelf."
The boy LaRose is the fifth LaRose in Emmaline's family, stretching back a century. Interwoven throughout the novel is a thread of the story of those LaRoses. Most of it involves the very first LaRose, an Indian girl so named by the white trader who saved her from a life of sexual degradation and eventually married her. Thus, the novel LaROSE also tells a more historical story of Native Americans, in which tuberculosis and boarding schools are especial scourges.
This is the fourth book that I have read by Louise Erdrich. She is a creative storyteller and a powerful writer, who at times seems to reach the primeval. Over the years she has continuously refined her craft. LaROSE, while very good, is not perfect: although it is not overwhelming, there is too much magical realism, too much of the supernatural for my taste, and the characters of LaRose and his sisters Snow and Josette are too goody-goody. (The girl Maggie, on the other hand, is delightfully complex.) But these are small quibbles. LaROSE is a novel well worth reading, and it should prove memorable in its demonstration that "Sorrow eats time" and "Time eats sorrow."