Some stories are years, decades, even centuries in the making. But the terrible accident that sets the stage for Louise Erdrich’s superb new novel — set on her fertile literary soil, tribal land in North Dakota — occurs swiftly and brutally.
Landreaux Iron — father, husband, recovering alcoholic — is a hunter with feet in two cultural worlds, a “devout Catholic who also followed traditional ways, a man who would kill a deer, thank one god in English, and put down tobacco for another god in Ojibwe.” He has been stalking a buck that has been grazing in his friend and neighbor Peter Ravich’s fields all summer, waiting for the creature to fatten up, and now the time is right. He shoots, and a second later he realizes he has not killed the buck but something else: Peter’s young son Dusty.
The tragedy is unthinkable, unforgivable. The lives of the Irons and the Raviches are intertwined — Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, and Peter’s wife, Nola, are half-sisters, though not particularly fond of each other, and Landreaux’s 5-year-old son LaRose is Dusty’s playmate. The loss strikes both families hard.
Anguished, Landreaux searches his Ojibwe past for ways of atonement; Emmaline balks initially at his solution but then reluctantly agrees. They will share LaRose with the Raviches. “Our son is your son,” Landreaux tells them when they bring the child to his new home. “It’s the old way.”
How that selfless, desperate act (which comes from Native American tradition) changes both families makes up the rest of LaRose, a novel so steeped in life and wonder and joy and sorrow that you may be tempted to call it Erdrich’s best. To be fair, each new novel she writes could conceivably earn that title. Still, LaRose offers a compelling argument.
The book, Erdrich’s 15th novel, touches on loss, grief, sacrifice, destiny, revenge, justice and redemption. There’s also looming war (when it’s not flashing back to the past, LaRose is set during the run-up to the Iraq War), sexual violence, cultural clashes, a rolling, vengeful head and any number of broken hearts. It’s funny, too, full of myths and magic, impassioned and unforgettable characters, with plots and past histories so richly imagined they could stand as novels on their own. Like Landreaux, Erdrich — who is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Tribe of Chippewa Indians — bridges two cultures, and her ability to seamlessly blend her own style of Native American magical realism and hard-won contemporary reality is unparalleled in modern fiction.
For LaRose, Erdrich revives characters from such earlier novels as A Plague of Doves and The Round House, which won the National Book Award in 2012 (the three novels form a loose trilogy). LaRose includes some of the bawdy old-timers from The Round House, as well as the weary ex-Marine priest Father Travis, who ministers to the community in his own unique, practical way.
“The one psychologist for a hundred miles around was so besieged she lived on Xanax and knocked herself out every night with vodka shots,” Erdrich writes. “Her calendar was full for a year.” Mass and a visit to Father Travis proves a useful alternative to anyone in need of spiritual guidance. But the priest has his own demons to battle, too.
Other indelible characters include Maggie Ravich, the dead boy’s sister, furious and fearless, who blossoms under the attention of LaRose’s genial older sisters Josette and Snow, who are so much fun they deserve their own TV series.
There’s also Landreaux’s old comrade Romeo Puyat, a pill-popping, thieving reprobate with “a caved tubercular-looking chest, scrawny arms, a vulturine head, and perpetually stoked-up eyes.” Romeo has allowed Landreaux and Emmaline to raise his son Hollis as their own, and he resents Landreaux for that and other failings, including what happened to them when they fled white boarding school together as teenagers. This grudge threatens the tenuous peace between the Irons and the Raviches.
And then there is LaRose himself, thoughtful and serious, caught between two worlds, bearing the name that has been in his family for 100 years. “They had resisted using the name LaRose until their last child was born,” Erdrich writes. “It was a name both innocent and powerful, and it 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.”
Healing his broken families, then, is LaRose’s power. Immersing us in this remarkable world so thoroughly, so satisfyingly, is Erdrich’s.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.