'LaRose' by Louise Erdrich: Brilliant, subtle exploration of tragic histories

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Louise Erdrich, author of "LaRose." Photo: Paul Emmel.

LaRose

By Louise Erdrich

Harper. 384 pp. $27.99


Reviewed by Michael Broida


Out hunting along the blurred line of reservation land in rural North Dakota, Landreaux takes aim at a buck. By the time he realizes his mistake, it is too late: He has mistakenly killed Dusty, his neighbor's son. Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, take an old form of justice to their neighbors, Peter and Nola, who is Emmaline's half-sister: "Our son will be your son now." It is the giving of this boy, LaRose, that forms the solemn linchpin of Louise Erdrich's new novel, LaRose.

The tragedy that connects these two families is at once singular and deeply historical, as Erdrich weaves in the history of a land and an Ojibwe people at once divided by tragedy yet unified in their love and adoration for the boy LaRose.

Landreaux and Emmaline believe the name to have special power as one passed down from their matriarch and all the power she embodied. As the novel progresses, Erdrich ties in the history of the previous four incarnations of LaRose, tracing them all the way back to the pioneer days of 1839, a name that would "protect him from the unknown, from what had been let loose with the accident. . . . Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent."

There is a palpable curse on LaRose's family, like something drawn out of the House of Atreus: "Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history. What was in that history?"

The two families, the Irons and the Raviches, find themselves exhausted in this grief, in the tragedy of a child whose life has been cut short before it could fully blossom, and for Erdrich, Dusty's death is emblematic of a larger tragedy enacted upon Ojibwe and other Native American families.

Many of the adults in LaRose are traumatized from their compulsory time spent as students at Indian boarding schools, where students were stripped of their cultural history and forced to assimilate into Western traditions. As Emmaline's mother remembers, "We left our name in those schools and others, all the way back to the first school, Carlisle. . . . [W]e wrote our name in places it would never be found until the building itself was torn down or burned, so that all the sorrows and strivings those walls held went up in flame, and the smoke drifted home."

Carlisle is the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Cumberland County, perhaps the most famous of these institutions, led by former calvary Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who famously stated his intention for his students was to "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

Each character in LaRose struggles with these past assimilations: They commune with the spirits of their ancestors while still seeking counsel from the Catholic priest; they painfully lay out the sacred family traditions they have treasured for generations while also attending their children's volleyball games against rival high schools. Throughout the novel, Erdrich lays out the boundaries of family, nationality, and heritage while gradually blurring each line into a deep fuzziness.

The novel follows a series of simple and solemn vignettes that cut across families and time to a rich tangle of emotions and grief. It might feel confusing to hold all the different epochs and five different LaRoses in mind, but Erdrich pushes the reader to let go of any rigid structure and to feel the entirety of the history and the action as her characters do: with a deep, concurrent, simultaneity.

The weakest moments might be in the minutia of high school and ancillary family drama, which detract from a broader scope of the compounded history Erdrich has brought into play, but the brilliantly subtle plotting and handling of two families and an entire bevy of friends, rivals, and community members gives life to a story at once about justice but much more about the people so desperate to carry it out, to see it through, and to bring themselves to peace and a deeper love: "Sorrow eats time. Be Patient. Time eats sorrow."

Michael Broida is a teacher and writer living in Massachusetts.

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