Our son will be your son now.
Up until the last day that I was reading this book, I was having a hard time working out whether I’d be able to review it. It seemed, in a hard-to-explain sort of way, to be resisting me. The premise was phenomenal, biblical: a man who kills a boy in a hunting accident offers to the bereaved parents the rearing of his own five-year-old son in exchange for the life he took. Yet something about the densely plain language seemed not to lend itself to analysis; nor were the rounded but somehow glassy characters being useful. I’ve never before read a Louise Erdrich novel, and there were things—decisions she made about where to cut off a scene, what folktales to recount, the details of those stories—that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. They weren’t obviously nonsensical. It was just that I wasn’t getting them.
Then it occurred to me that this was maybe what it felt like for ethnic-minority readers being made to read the white Western canon of literature, as part of a school class or a university course. Familiar in some ways, because humans are humans and all that, but in the little ways, the details, the shapes that we think stories “naturally” fall into… much more alien. Louise Erdrich is Ojibwe, and her novels have focused on Native Americans; this one, her fifteenth, is partly about forced assimilation (in its flashback sections) and about how identities don’t necessarily fade so much as they become patchwork. “LaRose” has been a family name for five generations, and Erdrich writes about all the things that the second LaRose learned: from her mother, LaRose # 1, how to be an Indian:
how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark. How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick…carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag.
And from the teachers in Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, LaRose the Second learns other things:
She gave recitations including a poem about the angel in the kitchen. She learned mathematics and memorized the shape of the countries on the globe. She learned American history…Mostly she learned how to do menial labor—how to use a mangle, starch, an iron. She worked ten-hour days in 120 degree heat. She learned how to sew with a machine. How to imagine her mouth sewn shut.
LaRose takes place, essentially, in two time periods. In one, the late ’90s to early 2000s, Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his friend Peter’s son, Dusty. He and his wife, Emmaline, give Peter and his wife, Nola, their son LaRose in exchange, although the transaction turns into a sort of timeshare; LaRose spends half his time with the Ravitches, half with the Irons. There’s a lot going on in this section: the complicated feelings and personal histories of the adults, who have all known each other from childhood; the mental instability of Nola, who clings to LaRose, obsessively bakes cakes, and spends much of the novel contemplating suicide; the violent rebellion of Nola’s daughter Maggie, who carries the responsibility for her mother’s life on her own shoulders, who is famed as a “discipline problem” at school until LaRose’s sisters convince her to try out for the varsity volleyball team, which gives her an outlet for all of her rage. There is Romeo Puyat, a classic fuck-up and former best friend of Landreaux; Landreaux and Emmaline are raising his son, Hollis, while he makes a living by stealing prescription medication from the reservation’s elderly and scamming passersby out of money for gas and booze. Romeo has a long-unaddressed beef with Landreaux, stemming from their school days. His desire to get even will provoke the book’s major plot crisis, such as it is, when he becomes convinced that there was a cover-up the day Dusty died.
The second time period deals with Nola’s and Emmeline’s ancestry (they are, in fact, half-sisters, although they don’t get along terribly well and barely speak to each other over the three-year period that the story covers.) They’re both descended from the original LaRose, a woman whose mother sold her, as a mere child, to a trader in a North Dakota outpost in 1839. The trader, Mackinnon, is a bully and a rapist, but his clerk, Wolfred, tries to protect the girl for as long as he can, and, when he can’t, the two of them kill Mackinnon and flee. LaRose goes to an Indian boarding school but returns to marry Wolfred, with whom she is in love. The two of them are haunted, though, by Mackinnon’s head, which (in one of the many touches that you might call magical realist) pursues them through the forest on their initial flight, bouncing from tree to tree. LaRose already has tuberculosis when she returns from the boarding school, and although she bears five children and holds on for nearly twenty years, she eventually dies of it. The doctor attending her at her death takes her body, for “science”. Despite Wolfred’s pleas, it is never returned to him.
Erdrich repeatedly defines herself, in interviews, as “a storyteller”, and it’s this, I think, that stumped me when I started trying to think about LaRose. It is, very basically, two stories. It can feel as though they’re just there, beginning to end, event lined up after event, without much confusion or complication for a critic’s analysis to shed light upon. But that’s not quite right, because the more I think about those two stories, the more connections I begin to see. Little LaRose (the boy, in the 1999-2003 timeline) walks in other worlds, just as the other LaRoses did: he sees and speaks to Dusty, the boy whom he’s somehow replaced. His emotional intelligence is way beyond his years: he knows how much Nola depends on him, how Emmaline gives him the lion’s share of her attention and love (at the expense of his older sisters) when he’s with them. He doesn’t abuse this awareness or manipulate the people who love him; he just knows. In several scenes, he sees the other LaRoses and hears them speaking to him. He’s the living embodiment of a history: the history of one family, but also the history of a tribe, a nation, a continent, a piece of land. Stolen, swapped, bartered, sacrificed.
If there is an oddness to LaRose (the novel, that is, not the boy), it’s that we never get an adequate sense of what the dead boy, Dusty, was like. He was only four when Landreaux shot him, so perhaps this is unsurprising: the personality of a four-year-old, no matter how developed, has its limitations. And even this, considered from a different angle, makes sense. It is not Dusty himself that matters: the dead are dead, they are elsewhere, in another place. It is the fallout of his death that matters, the fallout of all the trauma in this book. We should mourn the living, Erdrich seems to be saying: Nola, who balances on a chair in the barn with a rope around her neck every day for months, longing to die but not quite able to make the leap; Romeo, who surfs the waves of pills and delusion and resentment until his road-to-Damascus moment; Peter, whose rage surfaces in murderous fantasies; LaRose himself, whose most poignant line, to Maggie, is “Let’s stop being grownups.” The two of them have had to be grownups—caring for their parents’ emotional needs, instead of the other way round—much too soon.
But Nola does come down from her chair; Romeo attends Hollis’s graduation party, and is welcomed; Maggie finds a place and a way to be who she is without fear of punishment; LaRose traverses, peacefully, the worlds of the living and the departed. I hope to read more of Erdrich’s work soon: once you get past the initial sense of disorientation, you’re in the hands of someone who knows both her craft and her history.
Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. LaRose was published in the UK on 10 May.