Louise Erdrich’s new novel, “LaRose,” begins with the elemental gravitas of an ancient story: One day while hunting, a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s 5-year-old son.
Such a canyon of grief triggers the kind of emotional vertigo that would make anyone recoil. But you can lean on Erdrich, who has been bringing her healing insight to devastating tragedies for more than 30 years. Where other writers might have jumped from this boy’s death into a black hole of despair — or, worse, slathered on a salve of sentimentality — Erdrich proposes a breathtaking response.
“LaRose” plays out in the Ojibwe territory of North Dakota immortalized in more than a dozen of Erdrich’s works, including her novel “The Round House ,” which won a National Book Award in 2012, and “The Plague of Doves ,” which was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This is a realm thick with history and mythology, a place where the past nourishes the present with sweet and bitter water. The people of this region, Indians and whites, harken to a chorus of ancestors, Anishinaabe spirits and Jesus. Again and again, Erdrich shows us how a rich Native community perseveres against our nation’s efforts to destroy it, ignore it or render it a quaint irrelevance.
The shooting death of the young boy named Dusty at the opening of “LaRose” provides a stark demonstration of two cultures’ responses to a moral conundrum of horrific dimensions. The “civilized” legal system of the state quickly dispatches with Dusty’s death: clearly an accident; no one at fault. But that sterile judgment can’t soothe the parents’ agony or calm the perpetrator’s remorse. How will any of these tightly knit survivors go on living when dawn arrives “sad, calm, and brimming with debt”?
That is essentially the question Erdrich explores over the course of this expansive novel. Tempted to kill himself or drink himself into oblivion, the guilt-ridden hunter, Landreaux Iron, and his wife, Emmaline, withdraw to their sweat lodge and pray. “They sang to their ancestors,” Erdrich writes, “the ones so far back their names were lost. As for the ones whose names they remembered, the names that ended with iban for passed on, or in the spirit world, those were more complicated. Those were the reason both Landreaux and Emmaline were holding hands tightly, throwing their medicines onto the glowing rocks, then crying out with gulping cries.”
As is often the case, the answer to their prayers is not the answer they want to hear. But determined to heed their inspiration, Landreaux and Emmaline take their own 5-year-old son, LaRose, to the home of their grieving neighbors and announce: “Our son will be your son now. . . . It’s the old way.”
It’s an extraordinary gesture, an “unspeakable gift,” fraught with emotional complications that Erdrich explores with tremendous sensitivity. If there’s something obscene about trying to substitute another boy for their dead son, there’s also something undeniably comforting about LaRose’s living, breathing presence. “He was Dusty and the opposite of Dusty,” Erdrich writes. When the grieving father feels himself responding to LaRose, “he was pierced with a sense of disloyalty.” His wife is blind with fury and wants nothing to do with Landreaux and Emmaline and their infuriating magnanimity, and yet she also feels “a desperate grasping that leaned her windingly toward the child.”
Even more fascinating than Erdrich’s portrayal of the four parents consumed by “the phosphorus of grief” is her delicate handling of LaRose himself, the young boy forced to serve as the coin of this reparation. He’s named after a long line of female LaRoses, reaching all the way back to a feral child rescued by a trapper in the unsettled wilderness. “There had always been a LaRose,” Erdrich writes, and periodically, the narrative slips back to harrowing stories of those ancestors. They were healers of fearsome power who survived the relentless efforts to assimilate them into white culture, to drive the native blood from their bodies. (One of these haunting episodes appeared in the New Yorker last June.)
In the vast universe of Erdrich’s characters, this boy may be her most graceful creation. LaRose radiates the faint hues of a mystic, the purest distillation of his foremothers’ healing ability, but he remains very much a child, grounded in the everyday world of toys and school and those who love him. There’s nothing false about his salubrious effect on his adopted family — “I’m not a saint,” he says seriously — it’s just the natural effect of his genuine sweetness, his infinite patience, his preternatural willingness to be what these wounded people need him to be. Just one tender example: LaRose lets his adopted mother read “Where the Wild Things Are” to him over and over ad infinitum because he knows it was Dusty’s favorite, but when he visits his own family, he confesses, “I am so over that book.”
This is almost impossible to get right — that precarious mixture of innocence, wisdom and humor that can quickly curdle into preciousness. But Erdrich never missteps. The visions that LaRose experiences seem wholly in concert with his adolescent mind, and his efforts to save his adoptive parents from their own despair by hiding all the ropes, pesticides and bullets feel entirely appropriate for a child determined to do what he can.
As this private struggle plays out between the two families, there are other dangers slithering through the novel, too, that draw our attention out into the wider town. In a tense subplot, a seething rival threatens to poison Landreaux’s efforts to make amends. He’s an old friend from the reservation boarding school, a Native Iago, who has been rolling his outrage under his tongue for decades, eavesdropping and plotting for the right moment to exact his revenge. But even this wicked character eventually finds himself transformed by the moral alchemy of the Ojibwe community.
Dusty’s parents will never be whole, of course, and the man who killed him knows that “the story would be around him for the rest of his life.” But that doesn’t absolve any of these people from the formidable duty of caring for one another and their surviving children. “Be patient,” the ancestors advise. “Time eats sorrow.”
The recurring miracle of Erdrich’s fiction is that nothing feels miraculous in her novels. She gently insists that there are abiding spirits in this land and alternative ways of living and forgiving that have somehow survived the West’s best efforts to snuff them out.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Tuesday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m., Louise Erdrich will join PEN/Faulkner at an event co-hosted by the Library of Congress at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capitol St. NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call 202-544-7077.
By Louise Erdrich
Harper. 384 pp. $27.99