By Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is a grand chronicler of families. Her novels have featured parts of different families, connected tightly or just in passing, throughout different eras. In her latest novel, LaRose, the families are entwined because of tragedy and because of the deep need to belong.
Landreaux is married to Emmaline. Their youngest child is LaRose, a well-loved boy who has a family name, handed down each generation. Emmaline's half-sister, Nola, is married to Peter. They live nearby and have a son the same age as LaRose, named Dusty.
One day while out hunting, Landreaux accidentally shoots Dusty, who dies.
All four adults are berefit. Landreaux is cleared by the police but not by his own conscience. Wanting to make amends and perhaps hoping to be forgiven, Landreaux and Emmaline follow an old custom. They give LaRose to Nola and Peter to share.
The five-year-old spends part of his time with his birth family, including two teenage girls, an older brother and a boy who they have taken in. That boy, Hollis, is the son of Romeo, an old friend of Landreaux's. They are a loving bunch. The Ojibwe family work hard and take care of each other.
Over at the other house, there is only Maggie. She is a teenager who is having to grow up very fast. She knows her mother Nola is having a horrific time coping, even more than her kind-hearted, white father, Peter.
Maggie finds it easy to be mean. When some of the loutish boys at her white school attack her, she goes right after them. It's an incident that will have repercussions throughout the novel.
Repercussions carry the narrative. The way the characters all react to Dusty's death and LaRose's new situation living with both families, the way Romeo resents something that happened between him and Landreaux when they were boys, even the way Emmaline's ancestor, the original LaRose, lived, are not isolated incidents. As Erdrich writes about a character at one point:
The story would be around him for the rest of his life. He would move in the story. He couldn't change it.That notion fits in well with the idea of belonging. Every character, even Father Travis, who has played a role in other Erdrich novels, tries to find a way to belong. It's not just a matter of fitting in, with the connotation of not being one's own true self. That's what happened to many Native Americans when they were sent to boarding schools to "kill the Indian, and save the man", as the founder of the horrific Carlisle school wrote.
One thing that was not killed in this story is the deeply spiritual side of the characters. From the original LaRose to the siblings of the LaRose in this story, which takes place in the run-up to the beginning of the Iraq War, souls and their journeys have their voices heard. The boarding school trauma and repercussions from various characters having been sent away to them are an important aspect of the story.
Just as in The Round House, when Erdrich weaved in the horrors of what white man laws have done to Native American women, boarding schools are an integral part of who the characters are.
The issues and their impact are serious in Erdrich's work. But she is not a dour novelist. There is much to celebrate in her work, and her characters are the kind to care about because of their joys as well as their sorrows. The spirit of LaRose, a boy wise beyond his years, graces this work even in the pages in which his character does not appear.
©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission