LaRose by Louise Erdrich

“They spoke in both languages. We love you, don’t cry. Sorrow eats time. Be patient. Time eats sorrow.”

Unsparing yet profoundly touching LaRose chronicles the aftermath of a tragic accident: it’s 1999, when, on a reservation in North Dakota, Landreaux Iron, hunting for a deer near his property, accidentally shoots and kills Dusty, the 5-year-old son of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich. This act carves a chasm between the two families, once connected by friendship, now blood: not only the one spilt by Landreaux but by his and Peter’s wives, who are half-sisters. Peter and his wife Nola are bereft, but their pain manifests itself in vastly different ways. Nola spirals into her grief and her mercurial mood swings see her alternate between bottomless depression and frantic hostility. Plagued by sorrow and guilt Landreaux’s old wounds threaten to reopen: the abuse and humiliation he experienced at a boarding school, and the years lost to addiction. Seeking a way to make amends to the Ravich and to pacify the restless ghosts of his past, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, turn to an ancient custom of retribution. They take their youngest, and sweetest, child, LaRose, to the Ravichs, telling them that from now on he will be their son. This act binds the families together, but their bond, fraught with mutual resentment and suffering, rather than bringing them together, estranges them further.

At first, a confused and heartbroken LaRose longs to be reunited with his parents and siblings. As the days and weeks go by he begins to understand the role he must shoulder in the wake of Dusty’s tragic death. To soothe Nola’s loss he becomes her child, and in so doing he grows closer to his ‘new’ sister, Maggie. In their united efforts to survive Nola’s dark moods, which see her trapped in vicious cycles of hysteria and paranoia, they develop a touching kinship. Although LaRose’s presence is a great comfort to Maggie, her toxic and suffocating bond with Nola sees her attempt to rebel against her. The more she witnesses Nola’s despair the more Maggie wants to lash out against the world. Although Nola grows morbidly attached to LaRose, she cannot escape the pain brought about by her grief. Rather than be overwhelmed by sadness however Nola chooses to hate: her husband, for failing to save or avenge her son, her inscrutable and vicious daughter, her half-sister, and, of course, Landreaux.

After they give LaRose to the Ravichs, Landreaux and Emmaline drift away from one another. Both mourn LaRose, and Emmaline inevitably comes to blame Landreaux for being separated from him. Her other children, especially her two girls, Josette and Snow, do provide joy in her life, however, she is heartsick over LaRose. Landreaux too suffers, but he does this in silence. He visits the site of Dusty’s death and turns that horrific moment in his mind many times.
Eventually, LaRose comes to spend time with both of his families, offering comfort and relieving them of their sorrows. As he shuttles between his two families he begins bringing them closer together.
Both sisters, Nola and Emmaline, seek counsel from the local priest, Father Travis, a white man whose infatuation with one of them sees him testing the limits of his faith.
Another major player is Romeo, a former friend of Landreaux and now his sworn enemy, who, seeking revenge, begins sowing discord between the two families.
Interspersed throughout we have glimpses of LaRose’s ancestors, who share his namesake, such as the LaRose who in the 1830s was sold by her mother at a trading post and eventually comes to act revenge on her rapist. Our LaRose shares a connection with these LaRoses and can glimpse that world that remains unseen to other people.

The narrative is unremitting in its portrayal and exploration of grief, pain, and trauma. Erdrich renders all of the different shapes these experiences have on a person: some withdraw into themselves, and others, like Nola and Romeo, let their grief and hurt fester into something insidious, and malignant so that eventually, their pain turns into hatred and resentment. Or for Maggie, who not only experiences directly her mother’s volatile moods but comes to burdened by the responsibility of preventing her from committing suicide, she develops a sadistic and destructive streak. Erdrich examines the many ways in which traumas and generational trauma inform the worldview and existences of these two families and rancorous men like Romeo. The narrative brings together stories about people trying to survive, their painful pasts and unbearable presents, and of people who seek oblivion, and are surviving despite their best attempts not to. Erdrich doesn’t condemn or judge her characters, rather she lets the characters judge themselves and each other. Despite how unsparing Erdrich is in capturing their emotional, financial, and physical suffering, she does so with empathy. Her prose is razor-sharp when it comes to describing the characters’ inner turmoils or conveying the state of mind behind their actions. Time and time again we see characters falling into the same traps, as they remain haunted by their past mistakes or they remain fixated on their grudges and their pain. The complex dynamics between the characters are always compelling, whether they are upsetting or heartwarming. I loved the bond between the various siblings: from Maggie and LaRose to Josette and Snow.

Despite the heavy themes and the characters’ bleak circumstances, the narrative retains a strong sense of humor, a humor that perhaps is only possible because of the harrowing nature of its story. The characters are able to laugh despite and or because of their pain, and their laughter often is what keeps them from succumbing to their pain, their grief, and their resentment. There were so many touching moments in this novel. Moments where characters are able to connect with one another, and to see, understand, and share one another’s pain. There is comradeship and loyalty, in the face of grief and violence, between friends, between siblings. Erdrich authentically renders the voices of characters who are at very different stages of their lives: from the youngest one, LaRose, who in many ways is far wiser than the adults around him, to Maggie’s turbulent entry into adolescence, and the loneliness and regrets experienced by Nola, Romeo, and Landreaux. I found myself utterly absorbed by these two families and their shared stories. The dialogues and the setting are vividly rendered, from the rhythm of the characters’ conversations, be it tense and weighted with tense silences, or light and easy, like Josette and Snow’s tos and fros. There are many intriguing dynamics that I found myself wanting to read more of. I also wanted to read more about Hollis, Romeo’s son who grows up with the Irons, and Willard (aka coochy). At times the characters’ motivations and intentions remain slightly out of our reach, something that might annoy some readers, but it was something that to me added rather than took away from the story. At times feelings are clouded by ambivalence, either because we truly don’t know why we feel a certain way, or because we deep down know but don’t want to admit it to ourselves.

In LaRose readers are presented with a rich tapestry weaving together multiple perspectives and experiences. From the voices of LaRose’s ancestors to the ones of the characters directly affected by Dusty’s death. Throughout the novel, we read of people coming together and apart, of dysfunctional relationships and families, of people mired by their grief, their pain, their traumas and pain, of unspoken desires, of characters seeking their oblivion, other times their absolution, of the silences and distances that are created in the wake of tragedy, of Native identity and traditions, of pasts that haunt and of pasts that can heal, of resentment and forgiveness, of selflessness and its opposite…

Erdrich’s engrossing storytelling, which can be blunt and colloquial as well as subtly lyrical and profoundly evocative, is bound to captivate readers.
Erdrich is able to offer intimate close-ups of these two households and makes these fit into the larger pattern of life. There is a rhythm to Erdrich’s storytelling, created by the conversation between past and present, beginnings and endings, that occur throughout her narrative.
At once haunting and uplifting LaRose recounts a family drama steeped in tragedy, hatred, and love. Erdrich smoothly blends realism with myth, the result of which is at once striking and heart-wrenching.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

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