Louise Erdrich waits less than two pages to pierce us with the terrible event that sets LaRose in motion.
Landreaux Iron is hunting, as he has done all his life, along the border of the Ojibwe reservation where he lives when he spots a deer. "Landreaux took the shot with fluid confidence. When the buck popped away he realized he'd hit something else — there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger. Only when he walked forward to investigate and looked down did he understand that he had killed his neighbor's son."
The dead boy, 5-year-old Dusty, is the best friend of Landreaux's youngest son, LaRose. Dusty's father, Peter Ravich, is one of Landreaux's closest friends; his mother, Nola, is the half sister of Landreaux's wife, Emmaline.
All of those interlocking, intimate relationships, and more, will be strained and scarred by Dusty's death. In a stunning gesture of atonement inspired by the "old way" of their Ojibwe ancestors, Landreaux and Emmaline will give their son LaRose to the Raviches to raise in Dusty's place, with complex results.
LaRose fits like a carefully cut quilt piece into the world of Erdrich's fiction. She is the author of 14 previous novels; the first, Love Medicine, won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 14th, The Round House, won the 2012 National Book Award. In all of them, the settings arc across the Upper Midwest, from Michigan to North Dakota, and across as much as two centuries. Many of the characters are people of the Ojibwe tribe (also called Chippewa or Anishinaabe) or of mixed Ojibwe and white heritage, like Erdrich herself.
Erdrich's fiction is woven from some of the darkest, bloodiest threads of the history of the collision of indigenous and European cultures — and from the bright beauty of the bonds of tradition, family and friendship that the survivors share.
In LaRose, those bonds are severely tested. In the aftermath of Dusty's death, Peter is stoic, heartsick but open to forgiveness. Not so Nola: "Though she was a small closed-up woman who had never done harm in her life, she wanted blood everlasting." Her relationship with Emmaline, always strained by jealousy, collapses; once LaRose arrives in the Ravich house, she obsesses over the boy, often to the exclusion of her fierce, watchful daughter, Maggie. As Nola spirals down into grief, Maggie's watchfulness will become essential.
For Emmaline, her sister's hostility is just one more layer, piled over her mourning for Dusty and her even greater pain at the loss of her own son. She's also coping with Landreaux's intense guilt — and worrying that his past substance abuse and his job as a physical therapy assistant, making lots of home visits to patients with stocks of pain medications, could bring further trouble.
Other people in the community draw close to the two families in the wake of disaster. The local priest knows something about survival: "Father Travis had been a Marine. ... He had survived the barracks bombing in 1983, Beirut, Lebanon. The thick scars roping up his neck, twisting down in random loops, marked him on the outside and ran inside of him, too." He has a secret, though, that will complicate his efforts to help the Iron family.
Not so helpful is Romeo Puyat. Once among Landreaux's closest friends — the two endured the horrors of a government boarding school for Indians together — he's now a man with a grudge and a substance abuse problem. What will really wreak havoc, though, is that "Romeo had decided that information, long of reach, devastating, and, as a side benefit, a substance with no serious legal repercussions, was superior to any other form of power."
Erdrich weaves the stories of the Iron and Ravich families at the turn of the 20th century (the book begins in 1999) together with those of their forebears, notably all the women who have borne the name LaRose. The first was a young Ojibwe girl, sold in 1839 by her mother for a keg of whiskey. The white trader who bought her abused her until she and his white assistant killed him and ran away together — pursued, in one of the mythic threads Erdrich often sews into her stories, by his rolling, severed head.
As the novel moves forward in the present, the younger characters grow in importance, including Maggie as well as LaRose's siblings: his brothers Hollis and Coochy and his irresistible sisters: "The Iron girls. Snow, Josette. The Iron Maidens. They were junior high volleyball queens, sister BFFs, heart-soul confidantes to each other and advice givers to their brothers. They were tight with their mom, loose with their dad." Erdrich writes convincingly of the unpredictable process of the families fracturing, then drawing together in new ways.
At the book's center is its namesake, LaRose himself. Emmaline and Landreaux "had resisted using the name LaRose until their last child was born. It was a name both innocent and powerful, and had belonged to the family's healers. They had decided not to use it, but it was as though LaRose had come into the world with that name."
A sweet boy whom everyone dotes on, LaRose at age 5 finds himself in an impossible situation. But as the novel unfolds, he too finds his healing powers — not just in his ability to talk to his ancestors but in his warm, protective heart.
As Father Travis sees it, "Getting blown up happened in an instant; getting put together took the rest of your life."`
But Erdrich's characters are, as she writes of Romeo, "descended of the one Indian in ten who had preternatural immunities, self-healing abilities, and had survived a thousand plagues." None of them will emerge unscarred, but healing will come.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.