LAROSE. By Louise Erdrich. Harper. 373 pages. $27.99
On the acknowledgments page of “LaRose,” Louise Erdrich’s 14th adult novel and the third in a loose trio of books centering on justice, she thanks her mother, “who mentioned an Ojibwe family who allowed parents enduring the loss of a child to adopt their child — a contemporary act echoing an old form of justice.”
The novel begins with a close focus on two neighboring families. The Irons and the Raviches are united by blood, by friendship, by proximity and, finally, by a gruesome accident that binds them. On the second page, Landreaux Irons, lying in wait to shoot a buck he’s been fattening all summer, kills his neighbor’s son Dusty instead.
Erdrich, as many readers know, is the child of a German-American father and an Native American mother. She didn’t grow up on the reservation, but she visited often and is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of the Ojibwe. Erdrich doesn’t romanticize her culture. Instead, she gives us a robust, aching but often funny sense of an intact community. When Irons shoots the child of his best friend Peter Ravich, the tragedy isn’t contained within the two families involved. It wends its way into an entire tribe. In Erdrich’s world, every act has a history, and every grief is both collective and personal.
Erdrich has often said that her imagination is overrun by characters and stories — her interest in literature isn’t at all theoretical. This maximalist approach to storytelling makes for a crowded stage. Characters, along with their ancestors and descendants, come furiously to the page. The story of Landreaux Irons shooting Dusty Ravich stands stark and terrible, but perhaps less so when it begins to take its place in the community among a store of other narratives.
Erdrich opens her story in 1999. Peter Ravich is obsessed with the millennium and is waiting for something bad to happen, but not what did happen. When the worst thing happens — a child’s death by stray bullet — the giver and receivers of harm are united forever by the act. Landreaux Irons will learn that atonement is endless. All aspects of his life reflect the accidental death, especially his marriage. Emmaline Irons puts a wall up: “Sometimes he reached both hands through, unclenched, and Landreaux hurriedly clasped her from the lonely side.”
Life on the lonely side is even lonelier because Landreaux and Emmaline decide to send their own youngest child, LaRose, to the Raviches. Can one child fill the hole left by another’s death? The answer in this story is perhaps. Little LaRose, the giveaway son, softens the loss for Nola and Peter Ravich — so much so that the name of the dead child, Dusty, is almost absent from the novel. His presence seems too wispy to carry the burden of emotion left by his death. Although Erdrich in a recent interview speaks about the “hurtfulness of well-meaning gestures,” the donation of LaRose seems more good than not. The generous act is just that, the ultimate in sharing, but it is also a form of reparation, made easier by the elastic sense of family within the tribe.
The current LaRose is a “little healer,” the fifth in a line of LaRoses, all female before him, and all survivors. Embedded within the Iron family’s house is the original 1846 cabin of the first LaRose. They draw strength knowing that the ancestral pole and mud wall form the core of their space. All of the LaRoses have a tendency to fly above the earth and commune with spirits. Erdrich splices the voices and stories of the LaRose generations, living and dead, with other speakers from her fictional town of Pluto and its adjoining reservation. Loneliness, she says, goes down the generations until it works itself out finally in the boy LaRose. Hijacked children recur in every era and every family. Characters touch, merge, and fall apart again. Sometimes love and pain are the same.
Louise Erdrich is a dazzling writer who can tell a story that is both folkloric and contemporary. For all its atrocites, “LaRose” is a hopeful book, turning ultimately toward integration. The final scene is a regular jamboree of hard (and suspensefully) won forgiveness. Erdrich writes about “the gut kick of ... history” in “The Round House,” the novel that comes right before “LaRose.” There’s plenty of historical gut-kicking in “LaRose,” but Erdrich also imagines a way out of the American epic drama of conquest. Her new West is a more versatile contact zone where new myths are being dreamed.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.