We are chased into this life.
We are chased by what we do to others and then in turn what they do to us. We’re always looking behind us, or worried about what comes next.
Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich form the holy trinity of contemporary writers for me. They each produce impeccable novels on a regular basis, featuring strong but very human characters who are dealing with complicated and heartbreaking situations, and usually ending with pain tempered by some small hope. Race, gender, economics, history all form the fabric upon which their stories unfold. Over the past several cannonballs, I’ve reviewed Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, The Roundhouse and The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse and each has been a treasure. I highly recommend them. The Plague of Doves, The Roundhouse and Erdrich’s latest release LaRose all take place in the same “universe” — amongst the white and Native Ojibwe communities in North Dakota near the town of Pluto and on the neighboring reservation. The three novels have characters in common, but each is a stand alone work. You don’t have to have read the previous works to understand the latest, but the reading experience was richer for me for having done so. The reader gains a much deeper appreciation of this community, its history and those families who have lived there for generations.
LaRose is set in the years immediately before and after 9/11 and deals with revenge and healing. The story opens with the tragic death of 5-year-old Dusty Ravich in a hunting accident. Landreaux, the boy’s neighbor and good friend of the family, feels such guilt and remorse over the accident that he decides to resort to a traditional means of reparation — giving the boy’s family his own 5-year-old son LaRose. The Raviches (Peter, Nola and daughter Maggie) have been suffering. Nola is angry and suicidal and is often abusive to Maggie; she also hates Landreaux and his wife Emmaline, who happens to be Nola’s half sister. Maggie is also filled with anger and resentment, against the world in general and Nola in particular, while Peter struggles to hold his family together. The presence of LaRose in their lives does seem to have a healing effect for the Raviches, but it hurts Emmaline and Landreaux, whose marriage suffers, and their four other children. Amazingly, it is the children, particularly LaRose and Maggie, who possess great insight into their current situation and who learn to manage not just themselves but also their parents. They aren’t responsible for their parents’ problems, they didn’t cause them, but they must learn to live with the results and fix what they can. It’s rather like history; maybe “we didn’t start the fire,” but we have to acknowledge what happened and deal with it accordingly so as not to repeat it.
As with her other novels, Erdrich tells her contemporary story against a backdrop of family history which must include the painful history of Native Americans. The name LaRose is significant for Emmaline’s family, the Peaces. All previous LaRoses had been female, but what is significant is that the LaRoses were known for possessing a spirit of healing. The history of these women includes enslavement, rape, illness, forced separation from loved ones and attendance at boarding schools that would take the “Indian” out of them and make them “white,” thus losing their language, traditions, and history. The past of the Peace family informs its present. The wrongs of the past must be addressed — both historical wrongs and personal wrongs. And within this novel, there are many personal wrongs to be addressed, including betrayals, jealousy and infidelity.
The spirituality that pervades Erdrich’s novels never fails to move me. Elders pass stories and knowledge along to the young, spirits leave bodies to travel the world or to communicate with the living. This blurring of the line between living and dead, between “real” world and spirit world is a given for the characters and it is a comfort. Everyone sort of accepts that LaRose is special, that he does have some sort of spiritual gift for healing that is clear even when he is very young. The descriptions of his connection to the spirit world are beautifully written, and his response to them, his sense of what action needs to be taken, is simple, as befits a young boy, but surprisingly effective.
I marvel at Erdrich’s ability to take so many threads, each character’s story rich with detail, filled with colorful imagery and spiritual power, and put them together into one full, coherent story marked by beauty, humor, pathos. As I have remarked in my reviews of her other novels, Erdrich has a masterful ability to create characters who combine some of the best and worst qualities within one person. They are so very human; you can hate some of the things they do but not hate them. LaRose contains a strong message about healing, both personal healing and a more nationwide healing, that is quite apropos in our modern world. Like Landreaux, we have to take the first step and acknowledge the pain we have caused, whether we meant to or not.