Sunday, July 25, 2021

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. I discovered Louise Erdrich last year, when my wife nominated The Night Watchman for the club. We all enjoyed reading it, and it led to this book being nominated by another member, who has devoured a number of Erdrich books. This book was a bit darker in some ways than The Night Watchman, but also well written with nuanced and memorable characters. 

 The book starts with a bang - literally. Landreau Irons is out hunting a buck on his property, but after taking the shot, realizes something has come between his shot and his target. He is horrified to realize it is his five year old nephew, Dusty, dressed in tan, and in a completely unexpected place. This unintentional death leads to a series of consequences for everyone involved, and one could say that it is only the resilience of the community that keeps things together. 


Things are complicated by a series of cultural and family differences, and eventually inflamed by an old acquaintance with a long grudge. 


In the immediate aftermath, having consulted with a healer in a sweat lodge, Landreau and his wife Emmaline insist on following a traditional Ojibwe practice. Because Landreau has taken the life of the child, he must replace it. And so, little LaRose is given to Peter and Nola to replace their dead son. 


As we come to learn, Nola and Emmaline are half-sisters, but they do not get along. We never entirely learn why Nola in particular despises Emmaline, but a factor might be that Emmaline has “made good,” so to speak, and has a respected job in the community, while Nola has taken on a more domestic role. Peter and Nola also have a daughter, Maggie, who Nola hates, for reasons that are also not entirely clear. After Dusty’s death, Maggie is essentially neglected, and has to become the adult in the relationship with her mother, trying to keep Nola from committing suicide. Peter is the one white person in the family, of immigrant stock, and he is way out of his depth in all of this. 


Landreau has a past of drunkenness and drug abuse, but has been clean for some time. Emmaline used to use with him, but stopped first, and kind of dragged him to sobriety. They have three other children, teens Willard, Snow, and Josette, who play various roles in the story as it progresses. 


There are some other important characters as well. Romeo is Landreau’s old friend from boarding school - and as we learn, they have an interesting history together. Landreau convinced Romeo to escape from boarding school with him, and in fact it is Romeo who has the street smarts to keep them alive on the run. However, an accident leads to Romeo being severely injured and partially crippled trying to save Landreau from death, and Romeo ever after resents Landreau for it. Oh, and he is also jealous because he is in love with Emmaline, and feels that since Landreau met her first (because Romeo was in the hospital), he never had a chance. He mostly gets by with odd jobs and theft, while feeding his drug addiction. He is nonetheless a sympathetic and complex character. 


Also in love with Emmaline, as it turns out, is the local priest, Father Travis, who serves essentially as psychologist for the town, as there is no actual professional within 100 miles. 


Interspersed with the present day story are a couple of flashbacks to the past. The first is the account of Landreau and Romeo escaping from boarding school. It’s pretty exciting and humorous yet ultimately sad in that it didn’t result in freedom for them, but in a tragic injury and the beginning of Romeo’s spiral downward. 


The other story is that of the original LaRose. As it turns out, there were five of them. The first LaRose was an Ojibwe girl sold into sexual slavery back in the mid 1800s. She escapes from the trader who she was sold to by her mother with the aid of his clerk, Wolfred, after they poison the trader. Although they marry and have children eventually, she never tells him her real name - he nicknames her “LaRose” because she drew a flower instead of revealing her name. After that came a series of three more LaRoses on the female line, the last of which is Mrs. Peace, Emmaline’s mother. Each LaRose has had a connection with the spirit world - you could say perhaps healer or mystic or whatever word has that meaning in your own culture. The fifth LaRose, however, is male, which is a departure. Nevertheless, he too has a connection to the spirit world, and as a result, a good reading of other humans. 


The story of the original LaRose continues with her attending one of the first boarding schools to “become white.” Wolfred meanwhile lives with the Ojibwe, and becomes “Indian” as he puts it. When they marry, they become a kind of syncretistic mix - and indeed this ability to live in both worlds characterizes the family thereafter. Unfortunately, like so many in that day, the original LaRose also contracts tuberculosis at the boarding school, and passes it down the generations, until antibiotics lead to a cure for Mrs. Peace. LaRose fights off the TB for decades, but eventually succumbs, and the doctor who tried to save her steals her bones to use in teaching about the effects of TB on Native Americans. It takes generations before these bones are reunited with the family and given a proper burial. 


While Erdrich claims in the intro that the characters are all ficticious, this isn’t entirely true. Apparently, the story of the original LaRose is based loosely on her own ancestors. There is some artistic license, but the basic ideas are definitely not made up out of the whole cloth. 


Like The Night Watchman, LaRose has some pretty dark moments. However, neither is really depressing - in a way, they are all about survival. Personal, physical, cultural, communal, and psychological. 


In one of the most harrowing passages in the book, Erdrich quotes from newspaper editorials written by L. Frank Baum, creater of The Wizard of Oz. These were to the effect that since white people had so degraded the Native Americans over the centuries, they were no longer recognizably human, and the best thing for all involved would be to just exterminate them already. In light of this, the idea of just “making them white” by forcing their children into boarding schools was, technically speaking, the more “humane” alternative. Cultural genocide instead of physical genocide. As we are now discovering, a lot more children died than we have admitted - and were tossed in mass graves. 


So this idea of survival runs down the generations. 


We had a pretty long discussion of this book, despite only having a few people attend this time. The characters were so good that we ended up discussing most of them at least a little. We also spent a good bit of time on how Erdrich is able to write about heavy, sometimes depressing realities without giving way to despair or pessimism. Her books are unexpectedly positive, gracious, and inspiring, even as horrible things happen to people. Although family and community relationships are as dysfunctional as they are everywhere, there is still a sense of belonging, and coming together in most cases. Tying it all together is Erdrich’s excellent storytelling and writing. 


None of us knew it at the time we selected the book, but it is technically speaking the last in a trilogy, starting with The Plague of Doves, followed by The Round House. That said, the story stands alone, and no knowledge of the other books appears necessary to enjoy this one. The settings are similar, although they mostly take place on different parts of the reservation and surrounding areas. There are a few characters that overlap, or are related to each other. Mostly, however, it appears that they are thematically related, and thus referred to as the “Justice Trilogy.” If you want to explore the characters and family relationships from the trilogy, someone actually put together a website for it. If you want to get really into it, prior to the trilogy, a pair of writers actually wrote a whole BOOK about the intertwining characters, settings, and words of Erdrich’s novels. Apparently, like, say, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the novels all take place in the same universe, so to speak, with a multitude of interconnections across the books. 


I didn’t write down much while reading this book, but there was one line that was so good I have to quote it. This is regarding Mrs. Peace, the fourth LaRose, mother of Emmaline, and her ex, Billy Peace, who is also Nola’s father. After Billy died, Mrs. Peace somehow magically recovered from a whole list of medical issues. 


She knew, of course, why the pains had left her at that time. Billy had been cruel, self-loving, and clever. His love had been a burden no different from hate. Sometimes his ironies still sneaked at her from the spirit world. People thought she had been faithful to his memory because she had abjectly adored Billy Peace. She let them say what they wanted. Actually, he had taught her what she needed to know about men. She needed no further instruction. 


That’s pretty darn good. I must say, I have enjoyed both of the Erdrich books we have read for our club. I may have to put her in my regular rotation. 


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