Louise Erdrich’s ‘LaRose’: Two Families Bound by Death, Love and Healing

Courtesy HarperCollins / The cover of acclaimed Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich's latest work, the novel LaRose, which was released on May 10, 2016.

Louise Erdrich’s ‘LaRose’: Two Families Bound by Death, Love and Healing

“Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent.”

This line in the heart of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, LaRose, released today by Harper Collins, sums up the story of families and tragedies spanning generations.

The novel begins in North Dakota, 1999, with the accidental death of a child. Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwe man, is shooting at a buck when instead he hits the 5-year-old son of his next-door neighbors—his wife’s half-sister and her German-American husband, who is his best friend.

As a way to stop both families from unraveling in grief, Landreaux convinces his wife, Emmaline, to follow an old practice, replacing one child with another. Both have had visions of just such a transfer. And so they deliver 5-year-old LaRose to heal hearts and souls. Erdrich’s story shows how well the old way of justice did its work, linking the families again via their mutual love of LaRose.

But as it turns out, the “bad luck” did not begin with this accidental shooting, and this LaRose is merely the latest (and the only boy) in a long line of such “healers.”

Photo: Paul Emmel/ Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and French-American on her mother’s side and German-American on her father’s, deftly interprets the cultural aspects of all these heritages. Ever lyrical in her prose, she conveys a familiar yet terrible thread from the selling of the first LaRose in the 1800s by her mother to a trader, through sexual abuse, boarding schools, addictions, suicide attempts and plots of revenge. But there is also the defense of family, the sticking together through hard times, the love and the lovemaking. All are delivered in the quiet, powerful manner of this author who excels at conveying the painful histories of generations past and present while weaving in the realities of the spiritual realm and the possibilities of healing and love.

“I tried to not make it about grief and instead make it about the way people live,” Erdrich told Claire Hoffman in an interview posted on Goodreads.

As always, Erdrich’s characters are a complex mix.

“That’s always the struggle—where is the balance between the decency and brutality? And that’s a struggle that is embodied in Romeo,” she told Hoffman of one recurring character who loves Emmaline even as he craves revenge for long-past grievances with her husband, Landreaux.

LaRose is the 15th novel for Erdrich, whose prolific career includes poetry, children’s books, short stories and a memoir of early motherhood. In 2009, her book The Plague of Doves was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, which recognizes books that make important contributions to understanding racism and cultural diversity. In 2012 she won the National Book Award for fiction for The Round House.

Her debut novel in 1984, Love Medicine, received the National Book Critic Circle Award. She also received honors for lifetime achievement in literature: the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

On May 11, Erdrich will be honored yet again, being one of six chosen by the National Museum of the American Indian to be recognized at its annual gala.

Writing has not been Erdrich’s only literary contribution. She and her sister Heid, also an author and poet, started Wiigwaas Press to publish in the Ojibwe language and with family started and operate Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.

Those who order LaRose through the Birchbark Books website will receive author-signed copies.

Storytelling is not so much an option but an obsession, Erdrich recently told The New York Times.

“It’s probably the most selfish thing I do,” she said. “Truly. I don’t do it for anyone else. I do it because I have the addict’s need to get lost in the story.”

And as with most addictions, it doesn’t show any signs of going away, she added.

“And it gets worse and worse every year,” Erdrich told The New York Times. “I could go to rehab for this, but it’s my life.”

It is a life understood and experienced by many in Indian country, where the pain and the triumphs of the past are not forgotten but become part of the foundation on which the present and future are built. In LaRose, Erdrich expresses this experience in the very walls of her main character’s home.

“Landreaux and Emmaline’s house contained the original cabin from 1846, built in desperation as snow fell on their ancestors. It satisfied them both to know that if they layers of drywall and plaster were torn away from the walls, they would find the interior pole and mud walls. The entire first family—babies, mothers, uncles, children, aunts, grandparents—had passed around tuberculosis, diphtheria, sorrow, endless tea, hilarious and sacred, dirty, magical stories. They had lived and died in what was now the living room, and there had always been a LaRose.”

For healing, one can only hope there will always be a LaRose. For stories of experiences universal to all and unique to Indian country, one can be satisfied that for this generation, there is a Louise Erdrich.

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