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Friday, June 30, 2017


I've read a few Louise Erdrich novels before, but I'm not sure which ones. I looked over the summaries of her novels and they sounded familiar. I think I've read The Beet Queen, for example. I suppose my confusion has to do with my own mental faculties and the fact that Erdrich's novels, with a few exceptions, all take place among Indians in North Dakota and Minnesota.

So as does LaRose, which won 2016's National Book Critics Circle award for Best Novel. It's a good book, but books about Indian reservations have taken on a certain template that often involves magic realism, with spirits and a respect for the old ways, and it's gotten a bit tedious.

The novel gets off to a bang, quite literally. Landreaux Iron, out hunting, mistakenly shoots a young boy he thinks is a deer: "When the buck popped away he realized he’d hit something else—there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger. Only when he walked forward to investigate and looked down did he understand that he had killed his neighbor’s son." This is a terrible tragedy of course, but the hook (and Erdrich reveals in an interview that she heard a story of this really happening) is that Landreaux decides to give his own son, LaRose, to the grieving family, which is apparently a tradition among the Ojibwe.

This makes for an interesting plot. LaRose is the fifth by that name (the first boy), and Erdrich muddies up the story by adding the story of the first LaRose, a young Indian girl who marries a trapper (first they kill her "owner" by poisoning him, and then being pursued by his severed head). This is all fine, but seems to come from a different book. There are also interludes of old women telling folk stories that add color but not a lot of nourishment.

The best parts of the book are the way the families adjust to this confusion. LaRose's mother, Emmaline, and his new mother, Nola, are half-sisters who don't get along. Peter, Nola's husband, is a kind man, but his daughter Maggie is a bit of a flake who doesn't cotton to LaRose, at least at first. The boy, it seems, has something about him that makes him irresistible to everyone. He also has a bit of second sight, because when he goes to sleep at night at the spot where the boy was killed, he is visited by spirits. Nola is invariably depressed, and when Maggie catches her trying to hang herself she says, "God, Mom." Her voice came out squeaky, which made her even madder. "Are you really gonna use that cheap rope? I mean, that’s the rope we tied around the Christmas tree."

There are plot strands that take off in all directions. The local priest, a white man, is having an affair with Emmaline. Maggie is molested by a group of boys (LaRose, having a few Tai Kwan Do lessons, goes out to avenge her). LaRose's biological sisters, Snow and Josette, are volleyball players and enlist Maggie to play. This may be the first novel ever written with a a long, thrilling description of a girls' volleyball match. The climax of the story, involving a sad sack named Romeo, who blames much of his misfortune on Landreaux, is also thrilling and you may find yourself holding your breath while reading it.

Erdrich knows her location, though. She has observations about that part of the country like, "The one psychologist for a hundred miles around was so besieged that she lived on Xanax and knocked
herself out every night with vodka shots. Her calendar was full for a year," and "June. Between the two houses, maybe six billion wood ticks hatched and began their sticky, hopeful, doomed search. In that patch of woods, there was perhaps a wood tick for every human being on earth."

What I interpreted LaRose to be about is the unruliness of families. We have our biological families, and then we have the families we live with. Landreaux and Emmaline have taken in Hollis, Romeo's son. LaRose will shift between families, and appears to be blessed to have two instead of one. Some people have grown up with two families, such as shifting between parents and grandparents or aunts and uncles. I've seen that in my students, and it can be traumatic. But in Erdrich's book, perhaps indicative of the tribal mindset of Indians, it can be wondrous.

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