Top positive review
Tremendous opening and closing chapters -- and a lot of good stuff in between
Reviewed in the United States on September 14, 2017
The first chapter of LaROSE is one of the most arresting, perfectly crafted opening chapters I have encountered in a long time. It is 1999. Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwe Indian living on a reservation in North Dakota, goes hunting for a buck he had been tracking all summer. He finds it where the reservation abuts a cornfield of Peter Ravich, his neighbor and his best friend. "Landreaux took the shot with fluid confidence." But someone, somehow -- horribly -- intervened. Between Landreaux and the buck was Peter Ravich's six-year-old son Dusty, perched in a tree, also looking at the buck. The bullet struck and killed him. The Ravich family is devastated. Peter is on the brink of killing Landreaux, even though they are best friends; Nola, Dusty's mother, emotionally fragile to begin with, becomes suicidal. Although the police investigation exonerates Landreaux, he is racked by guilt; his wife Emmaline, who is Nola Ravich's half-sister, is also torn up. To address their grief and as a gesture of compensation, they give their youngest son, LaRose (who had been Dusty's frequent playmate) to the Raviches to replace Dusty.
The novel then tracks the Iron and Ravich families over the next four years, as they try to adjust to and live with the horrendous event. Over time, they end up sharing LaRose, who turns out to be preternaturally good, mature, and understanding. Much of the novel is devoted to the teenage daughters of the two families -- Snow and Josette Iron and Maggie Ravich. They become a tight trio playing on the reservation high school volleyball team, and their adolescent hijinks and sparkling repartee frequently warm the heart or evoke a smile. The story includes other characters from the reservation, two of whom assume major roles: Father Travis Wozniak, an ex-Marine and survivor of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, who operates as a strict but compassionate moral conscience, but then becomes plagued by a love for Emmaline Iron; and Romeo Puyat, a scrawny, weasely Indian and bottom-feeder, who has a long-standing grievance against Landreaux Iron for which he plots vengeance, even though Landreaux and Emmaline took in and raised his son Hollis, after the mother deserted Romeo.
Along the way, the reader is provided what I assume to be an excellent picture of contemporary (circa 2000) life on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota: A mélange of modern American life and traditional practices. Many adults working odd jobs to make ends meet. Some adults drug- or alcohol-addled. Much abuse of opiates and prescription painkillers. Diabetes. Yet a functioning community.
That community is marvelously brought together and portrayed in the novel's closing chapter. The event is a high-school graduation party for Hollis Landreaux, who is then going into the National Guard. "[T]he yard around the house was crowded with people talking, filling plates with food, laughing, like, well, a bunch of Indians. So many people were eating that all the chairs were taken, then the back steps, the front steps. Towels were laid on top of the cars so girls wouldn't stain their flouncy skirts with car dirt. People stood talking with plates of food in their hands, eating and eating because the food was top-shelf."
The boy LaRose is the fifth LaRose in Emmaline's family, stretching back a century. Interwoven throughout the novel is a thread of the story of those LaRoses. Most of it involves the very first LaRose, an Indian girl so named by the white trader who saved her from a life of sexual degradation and eventually married her. Thus, the novel LaROSE also tells a more historical story of Native Americans, in which tuberculosis and boarding schools are especial scourges.
This is the fourth book that I have read by Louise Erdrich. She is a creative storyteller and a powerful writer, who at times seems to reach the primeval. Over the years she has continuously refined her craft. LaROSE, while very good, is not perfect: although it is not overwhelming, there is too much magical realism, too much of the supernatural for my taste, and the characters of LaRose and his sisters Snow and Josette are too goody-goody. (The girl Maggie, on the other hand, is delightfully complex.) But these are small quibbles. LaROSE is a novel well worth reading, and it should prove memorable in its demonstration that "Sorrow eats time" and "Time eats sorrow."