Louise Erdrich’s ‘LaRose’

LAROSE. By Louise Erdrich. Harper Collins. 372 pages. $27.99.

In Louise Erdrich’s latest novel “LaRose,” the relationship between two neighbors is forever changed when one accidently kills the other’s child in a hunting accident. The families have lived next to one another for years. The children are friends. The fathers are friends. The mothers are half sisters.

So how do the families move forward? How do they forgive? Forgiveness and reparation in Native American culture are questions that Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe, examines in “LaRose.”

Erdrich lives in Minneapolis and owns a bookstore that specializes in Native American culture. She is the mother of three biological and three adopted Native American children, and has said that she writes about the world that she knows. In an interview with The New Yorker, Erdrich said “This book is the last of three books I’ve written about justice. ... This last book deals with natural justice, a reparation of the heart, an act that has old roots in indigenous culture.”

Like two of her previous novels, “The Plague of Doves” and “The Round House,” this new book is set on an Indian reservation. The novel is divided into three time periods; the present, the near past and the distant past. Written from an omniscient point of view, the story is told in the voices of teenage siblings, the local priest, a drug addict, spirits and a woman on the verge of suicide. These voices tell stories that widen the scope of the novel with simple, heartbreaking prose and remind readers of the essential connection between the past and present.

Erdrich’s connection with Native-American culture is evident in the dialogue between characters at a basketball game, a nursing home and around the dinner table. These are simple conversations between siblings or classmates that flow with the authenticity of someone who listens and understands the nuances of a language. “Our son will be your son now,” Landreaux and Emmaline Iron tell Peter and Nola Ravich, as they present their 5-year-old son LaRose to their grieving neighbors. “It’s the old way.”

This simple statement represents a harrowing decision for the Irons, but explains everything. The Irons are a traditional family who rely on their cultural heritage and community for guidance. The Ravichs accept LaRose into their broken home and slowly, he becomes a calming force at the center of the storm created by his father. LaRose comes from a long line of healers (there are five LaRoses, and the book includes stories about the first and second). He soothes his adopted sister’s fury through interactions with animals on the farm. After Maggie spitefully pours a can of beer into the dog bowl, LaRose captures spiders without squashing them, observes but does not drown a hill of ants and calms the hens before they are killed.

Erdrich transports us from the present back to the early 1900s with the story of the second LaRose, who is sent to a Native-American boarding school. The government-run schools were established to educate and assimilate Indian children, and Erdrich captures this shameful episode of our history in poignant detail. “Many were brutal, but worse even than the loneliness and alienation that children endured was the constant threat of disease,” she writes of the school.

At school, the second LaRose “learned to stink, learned to itch, learned to boil her underwear for lice and wash only once a week, once every two weeks, three. She learned to sleep on cold floors, endure the smell of white people, and set a proper table. She learned how to watch her friends die quickly from the measles, or chokingly from pneumonia or shrieking from the agony of encephalitic meningitis.”

We learn of Landreaux Iron’s childhood experience at a boarding school in the 1960s. He escapes with his classmate Romeo by hanging onto the underbelly of a bus. Life outside the school is harsh but Romeo observes that “food wasn’t the reason Landreaux had run away. It was more to do with living smothered by alien rules, ... and fighting to keep himself.” Romeo is injured during their time in the wild and he carries a grudge against Landreaux that festers into adulthood.

Erdrich uses humor throughout the book to lighten the tension between characters. In one memorable scene, Romeo visits the nursing home where he is known by the elders for stealing their medicines. The elders secretly switch the meds, and Romeo is taught a hilarious, cringe-worthy lesson. These sections of the novel deepen the story, but pull readers away from the more compelling characters of LaRose and his family.

With vivid imagery and poignant detail, Erdrich celebrates the human fight to stay alive despite generations of pain. Through the success and failures of imperfect, fallible men, women, children and spirits, we learn about the enduring human journey. “Sometimes he stumbles, but he picks himself up and keeps going.”

Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.