By Mats C.
Louise Erdrich’s latest novel starts off with a bang—literally. A shot is fired off Landreaux Irons’s rifle. Landreaux has been targeting a buck but a moment of blur costs him the majestic mammal and instead, what he hits is his neighbor-friend’s five-year-old son.
LaRose is about grief, it’s about life after a dear’s death: the initial darkness that sets in that sometimes eats into a person’s mentality, soul; and the eventual light that pierces through progressively, pieces together the shattered heart. It’s also about being Ojibwe and staying true and traditional even if that means giving away your child as replacement for the one you “accidentally” shot down.
The book is Native American through and through: Erdrich has Native ink fiercely coursing through her veins, and her grandfather’s Indian-boarding-school penmanship graces the cover. Aside from these external indications, the book’s bulk depicts the struggle of Native Americans living first among non-Natives, then along the margins of society, on boundaries of reservations, as a matter of fact. We see how they scavenge for food and survive while living precariously on the edge: young Landreaux and Romeo Puyat hanging on for dear life under a moving bus, and sleeping at a considerable height. Clearly there is a division between the Natives and the non-Natives, Indians and whites, the homeless and the well-fed, the old and the new, the bad and the good. In a way, those who are bestowed the name LaRose in each generation, who will be endowed with a spiritual prowess and the power to influence, have lived to bridge the gap. Back in mission school in the 19th century, the original LaRose is said to be “turning into a white woman”, dressed in corsets and being educated. In comes Wolfred Roberts, later the father of her offspring, who is unashamedly “turning into an Indian”, finding love in LaRose and a deep appreciation with the culture… this subculture.
The language feels earthly, of the soil: other than the intentional abandonment of quotation marks, of some technicalities in terms of formal grammar, it exudes a primal quality, like it’s declaring this is how it can only be written. Erdrich is here an excellent word-weaver, a mistress of her craft. She writes a unified and fluid narrative that doesn’t waver despite Time jumping back and forth between eras. She manages, as well, to interlace the worlds of the real, the magical and the drug-induced to shape a singular space where love can lift two bodies atop oak trees, at the same time, ground another two to dig and explore their own selves, each other and “the owl that had entered her body”. Personally it’s her poetic turns that are affecting. There’s this couple of paragraphs, midway through Wolfred and LaRose’s episode, about tuberculosis that would make you forget it only exists to wrack lungs: instead, its conception is wonderful, its transmission, like a ballet performance.
Sections come in aplenty but not without each one structured formidably. The climax, in particular, is a master class. At first, you notice that a sudden change of verb tense has occurred—from the conventional past tense to the present. Romeo Puyat, a most interesting character, features and is supported by Father Travis, an interesting, morally-conflicted character himself. Prior to this, Romeo was seen, basically, as a nuisance—this weasel living through parsimony and living off the discarded—and a joke in the eyes of elderly women. Working his way around quietly he has amassed confidential information which he is confident will set the gears turning against his former friend Landreaux Irons. What transpires after he unleashes this dangerous knowledge, the brief satisfaction he relishes and meeting Father Travis in a surprisingly empty AAA meeting is nothing short of breathtaking. A Himalayan high.
It’s been known that mothers and grandmothers of Native American upbringing would weave magical webs for their children, and this would eventually form into what we know as the dreamcatcher. Structurally speaking, the family drama that is LaRose contains complexities, intricacies and connections which can be compared to this iconic symbol of native America. In like manner that the dreamcatcher traps bad dreams, we find in LaRose, towards the end, the antagonistic figure of vengeful, crooked Romeo being spread-eagled against the rising sun before casting himself violently down the church steps. Maturity, redemption, justice, forgiveness, love, positive action—these are the ones allowed to linger and slide down the dreamcatcher’s feathers to protect whoever’s sleeping soundly.
Generations of female LaRoses have come and gone, their impactful existence, representative of a rich ancestral heritage remaining intact in these modern times. The latest LaRose, eight-year-old LaRose Iron, an amiable and already flourishing young man, is an assuring sign for the preservation of the Ojibwe tradition. Louise Erdrich continuing to produce literature as beautiful and illuminating as this most recent effort can only mean perpetuity.
Mats lives for poetry and the heartbeat in each word. He would like a cup of warm tarragon tea from time to time.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]