Wednesday, March 21, 2018

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

There are five LaRoses.  First the LaRose who poisoned Mackinnon, went to mission school, married Wolfred, taught her children the shape of the world, and traveled that world as a set of stolen bones.  Second, her daughter LaRose, who went to Carlisle.  This LaRose got tuberculosis like her own mother, and like the first LaRose fought it off again and again.  Lived long enough to become the mother of the third LaRose, who went to Fort Totten and bore the fourth LaRose, who eventually became the mother of Emmaline, the teacher of Romeo and Landreaux.  The fourth LaRose also became the grandmother of the last LaRose, who was given to the Ravich family by his parents in exchange for a son accidentally killed.

In all of these LaRoses there was a tendency to fly above the earth.  They could fly for hours when the right songs were drummed and sung to support them.  These songs are now waiting in the leaves, half lost, but the drumming of the water drum will never be lost.  This ability to fly went back to the first LaRose, whose mother taught her to do it, when her name was still Mirage, and who had learned this from her father, a jiisikid conjurer, who'd flung his spirit all the way around the world in 1798 and come back to tell the astonished drummers that it was no use, white people covered the earth like lice.

Landreaux Iron goes out one day to shoot a buck he's seen wandering around his property.  He misses the buck and instead shoots five-year old Dusty, the son of his neighbor and friend, Peter.  Overcome with guilt, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline return to the traditional ways of their Ojibwe community--the sweat lodge--and are given a solution: they must give their son LaRose, who was Dusty's friend, to Peter and his wife.

That's a killer setup, and it all happens in the first ten pages of so of Louise Erdrich's novel LaRose.  The boy at first is confused, unsure why he's suddenly been exiled from his family and absorbed into another.  But as it turns out, LaRose has a gift for kindness and rehabilitation, given to him as part of a long line of LaRoses, whose stories are woven throughout the book.  It is LaRose that helps Dusty's sister Maggie comprehend her grief, and LaRose who studiously watches over Dusty's mother Nola to make sure that she doesn't commit the suicide she is contemplating.  It doesn't take long before the two families work out an uneasy arrangement that essentially makes LaRose the shared son of both, and LaRose seems to accept it as his duty as peacemaker.  It's a long process, but you can see where it's going: it's LaRose that will bring these two families together and help them reintegrate, both within themselves and each other.

LaRose asks, how can we atone for what we've done?  It is, to borrow a Christian word that doesn't always fit the traditional Ojibwe religion of the novel, about grace.  The question plays out in the central narrative, but also in a number of subplots, including the sexual assault of Maggie and the jealous contrivance of a loner named Romeo to wreak revenge on Landreaux for a decades-old act of crueltyThe point gets made, but it's hard not to feel like the novel is overstuffed with these variations on a theme.  Would the novel have worked equally well without the presence of Hollis, Romeo's son, who Landreaux has raised for unclear reasons?  Probably.

I find that I like Erdrich's work best when it's historical in nature.  LaRose is set in the early 2000s and it reminds you of that fact by making repeated distracting allusions to the Iraq War.  Peter is a Y2K doomsday prepper, which might have been, but is not, a useful angle.  But most importantly, a tone of falsity creeps into the novel because of the material culture of the new millennium, perhaps because it accentuates an essential mundanity to the lives of these characters.  I mean, there's a whole passage that milks the drama of a girl's high school volleyball game, and it just doesn't work for me.  I don't know what makes that happen, but I don't think Erdrich is the only novelist who struggles to make the contemporary work.

In fact, the section of LaRose I found most compelling was the interstitial chapter that tells the story of Romeo and Landreaux, who escape from a white-run school for Native Americans and live with the homeless on the streets of Minneapolis in the 1970's.  Landreaux sees one of their teachers everywhere, thinking she's come to drag them back to the school which seeks to erase their identity, as if she stalks the earth like the spirit of white paternalism.  There's a lot about "Indian schools," actually; all the incarnations of LaRose seem to have been forced to attend one.  Perhaps the most powerful thing about the novel's investigation of grace is the idea that it might be projected onto a national scale, and applied to the broken and bloody relationship between the United States and her native peoples.

But at its heart, LaRose is about the possibility of healing between two families in the face of the most profound tragedy that any family can face.  It avoids bromides and easy answers even as it affirms that such healing really is possible.

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