Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, LaRose, begins with tragedy: Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwe man, is carefully stalking a deer through the woods when he accidentally shoots and kills his friend and neighbor’s 5-year-old son. Landreaux is beside himself with guilt, and after he and his wife Emmaline talk with a priest and spend a night in their sweat lodge, a path forward becomes clear. He burns the rifle and buries the ammunition, and then Landreaux and Emmaline spend one last night with their own 5-year-old son sleeping between them. The next day, following a nearly forgotten custom, they give him to the dead child’s parents to raise as their own. His name is LaRose.
“There had been a LaRose in each generation of Landreaux’s family for over a hundred years. Somewhere in that time their two families had converged. Emmaline’s mother and grandmother were named LaRose. So the LaRoses of the generations were related to them both. They both knew the stories, the histories…” Over the course of the novel, the reader does too. We learn the story of the first LaRose, sold by her mother for “rum, a mixture of raw distilled spirits, red pepper, and tobacco,” who helped poison her purchaser and then fended off his vengeful severed head, who went to Indian boarding school but returned with her self of self intact. We learn of LaRoses who go to school voluntarily, who fight off tuberculosis, who become teachers and caregivers, and who are the replacement for a dead child. All are healers in their own ways.
Erdrich is at her best when she weaves together stories from the past and present, illuminating the connections between generations, and sometimes between the spirit and corporeal worlds. And in this novel she does just that—not only with the generations of LaRoses but with other characters as well. A bottom-feeding drug addict flies through space past a beloved school teacher while both are in altered states; a troubled girl absorbs the spirit of an owl to give her the strength to survive hardship; a priest realizes that he and an apparent degenerate love the same woman.
Boundaries between good and bad become blurred as “bad” actions (a revenge plot, a suicide attempt, an intended murder) lead to unexpected relationships and reconciliations. When the young LaRose asks his elders what the moral of a particular origin story is (a story about a woman who has an affair with a snake, but her husband kills the snake and then beheads her, and her head rolls after her children, who form a landscape as they flee), the elder replies, “Moral? Our stories don’t have those!” And this story doesn’t either, although it highlights the way individuals within communities are connected, whether they want to be or not.
LaRose becomes a bridge between the two families, helping both heal from the loss of the dead child. He helps the grieving mother regain her will to live and the grieving father lose his will for revenge. He adopts the dead child’s sister as his own, and then his own sisters do too. The children bond over ice cream and volleyball games, homemade beauty treatments and a stray dog, and these connections draw their parents closer as well.
In addition to constructing an intricate plot full of loss and redemption, and characters who embody three complex dimensions (and sometimes more), Erdrich’s evocative writing transports the reader further, making the ordinary extraordinary. A daughter hears her mother cheering for her during a volleyball game and “the butter swirled down around her heart.” A man facing death “tries to sing a death song like old people talk about, but his throat shuts… Fear fizzes in his blood.” A boy leaves a dead elder and walks out into “the navy-blue frost-haloed air… The cold flowed around him and down the neck of his jacket. His ears stung but he didn’t put his hood up. He moved his fingers, shoved in his pockets. There were so many sensations in his body that he couldn’t feel them all at once, and each, as soon as he felt it, slipped away into the past.”
At the end of LaRose, the past and present merge, with hints at the future. Some stories come to a close but others stay open, leaving us to wait for Erdrich’s next novel, in the hope that she continues with the characters from this branch of her ever-growing, evergreen fictional family tree.