For the past four years, I’ve been “babysitting” some of my sister’s books while she pursues her PhD. One of those books is LaRose by Louise Erdrich. Since November is Native American Heritage Month, I was planning to read a few novels by Indigenous authors, and my sister recommended LaRose. She’d read it as part of a book club she was in, and she wanted to know what I thought of it.
|LaRose by Louise Erdrich|
|Genre||Literary Fiction; Drama; Magical Realism; Historical Fiction|
|Setting||North Dakota; Minnesota; Kentucky|
|Number of Pages||372|
|Format I Read||Hardcover|
|Original Publication Date||May 10, 2016|
In this literary masterwork, Louise Erdrich, the bestselling author of the National Book Award-winning The Round House and the Pulitzer Prize nominee The Plague of Doves wields her breathtaking narrative magic in an emotionally haunting contemporary tale of a tragic accident, a demand for justice, and a profound act of atonement with ancient roots in Native American culture.
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.
The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.
LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a coconspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.
But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.
Inspiring and affecting, LaRose is a powerful exploration of loss, justice, and the reparation of the human heart, and an unforgettable, dazzling tour de force from one of America’s most distinguished literary masters.
Based on the summary, I knew going in that LaRose would likely be a heavy and difficult book. However, everything unfolded rather differently than I’d anticipated, and it brought in unexpected themes and subplots.
During the first part of the book, set between 1999 and 2000, in the aftermath of Dusty being killed, it was hard for me to really get into the story. It’s not just that it was a painful and sad arc. The way it’s written made it hard for me to connect with the characters. It’s a rather literary style of prose, and the lack of quotation marks during characters’ conversations leaves the reader at arm’s length throughout the book. It always felt like I was watching them from afar rather than being enveloped in their story.
I much preferred the later parts of LaRose. In particular, I enjoyed the sections about the original LaRose and Wolfred in the mid-1800s, as well as the part devoted to young Landreaux and young Romeo when they ran away from boarding school. In fact, I probably would have preferred if each of those sections had been expanded into a full book. I enjoyed both more than the main plot of the novel.
The last two parts in the 2000s were better than the first, but by the end, it felt like the book had lost focus. The new tangents were preferable to the main story, and yet it felt like the initial plot was somewhat forgotten.
There were a lot of interesting elements and plot points within this book, but it never fully coalesced for me. The whole was never as good as the sum of its parts. I wish that several portions in here had been expanded upon and made more emotional, whereas other items could have been removed and actually improved the story. In the end, LaRose didn’t feel cohesive.
Part of that may come down to the characters. One thing that struck me throughout the book is that, in general, I didn’t enjoy reading about the adult characters. They all felt so melancholic and even dull. I much preferred the children and teens: They had interesting and unique perspectives on things, and they infused the book with some needed vibrance. Young LaRose, Maggie, Snow, and Josette were all a delight to read about. Even Landreaux and Romeo, as kids, were fun, in contrast to how they ended up as two grown men.
I did appreciate the discussion of mental health. Nola is clearly in a bad place, and her suicidal ideation is difficult to read about. However, it feels important and adds depth to the novel. Maggie is also an interesting character – a bit intimidating, but also surprisingly caring. Two characters face issues of sexual assault, another tough topic, but in both instances there isn’t too much detail. There, the focus is more on the aftermath, how the victims processed the assault and moved forward from it.
LaRose brings in elements of magical realism – see floating heads and flying souls, for example – in addition to a dark family drama. While I enjoyed several aspects of it, and liked getting to know more about Native American (specifically Ojibwe) culture, LaRose was a hard book for me. I can’t say I was excited to read it, but I did want to know how it would turn out, and that curiosity kept me going.
In the end, LaRose was an interesting but somewhat dissatisfying book. It left me wanting more, or just wanting something else. Perhaps it simply wasn’t the right story for me. Even so, it is thought-provoking and could be more fulfilling if you read it as part of a book club. This was my first book by Louise Erdrich, and I will try a couple more of her books to see if they’re more my style.
About the Author
Louise Erdrich is one of the most gifted, prolific, and challenging of contemporary Native American novelists. Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, she grew up mostly in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Her fiction reflects aspects of her mixed heritage: German through her father, and French and Ojibwa through her mother. She worked at various jobs, such as hoeing sugar beets, farm work, waitressing, short order cooking, lifeguarding, and construction work, before becoming a writer. She attended the Johns Hopkins creative writing program and received fellowships at the McDowell Colony and the Yaddo Colony. After she was named writer-in-residence at Dartmouth, she married professor Michael Dorris and raised several children, some of them adopted. She and Michael became a picture-book husband-and-wife writing team, though they wrote only one truly collaborative novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991).
The Antelope Wife was published in 1998, not long after her separation from Michael and his subsequent suicide. Some reviewers believed they saw in The Antelope Wife the anguish Erdrich must have felt as her marriage crumbled, but she has stated that she is unconscious of having mirrored any real-life events.
She is the author of four previous bestselling andaward-winning novels, including Love Medicine; The Beet Queen; Tracks; and The Bingo Palace. She also has written two collections of poetry, Jacklight, and Baptism of Desire. Her fiction has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle (1984) and The Los Angeles Times (1985), and has been translated into fourteen languages.
Several of her short stories have been selected for O. Henry awards and for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Story anthologies. The Blue Jay’s Dance, a memoir of motherhood, was her first nonfiction work, and her children’s book, Grandmother’s Pigeon, has been published by Hyperion Press. She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore called The Birchbark.