Inheriting Pain and Wisdom: Louise Erdrich’s LaRose

Erdrich has perfected the meteor-strike novel—tales that begin with an out-of-the-blue, catastrophic event, and then track the ensuing shock waves. This dramatic structure shapes Erdrich’s National Book Award–winning The Round House (2012) and takes on even more intensity here.


LaRose. By Louise Erdrich. May 2016. 384p. Harper, $27.99 (9780062277022).

Two neighboring families live in a North Dakota community in which many of the Ojibwe are related, memories are long, and the wounds of the war against Native Americans run deep: “Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history.” The women, half-sisters, do not get along; their husbands have become friends. Landreaux and Emmaline Iron are raising five children, including their youngest, LaRose, a preternaturally soulful five-year-old boy. Nola and her white husband, Peter Ravich, have Maggie and Dusty, born at the same time as Dusty’s favorite playmate, LaRose. The summer of 1999 is waning, the Y2K scare growing, and Landreaux, a physical-therapy assistant devoted to his clients and guided by both Ojibwe beliefs and the Catholic Church, is hunting. He’s a crack shot, but when he pulls the trigger, the deer flees, and Dusty falls.

Landreaux and Emmaline make a devastating decision: they will give LaRose to Nola and Peter. “Our son will be your son,” Landreaux says. “It’s the old way.” As Erdrich explores the inevitable anguish and complications inherent in this act of sacrifice and attempt at justice, she takes soundings of the wellsprings of trauma and strength shaping these grieving households. The time frame shifts to 1839 when a trading post stood on the land the Irons now occupy. There a desperate Ojibwe woman “from a mysterious and violent family” trades her daughter for rum, igniting a terrifying sequence of passion, murder, and supernatural revenge. Gliding back and forth in time, Erdrich follows the long line of healers named LaRose, and reveals Landreaux’s long-hidden past tied to a boarding school designed to sever Native American children from their roots, as well as his volatile relationship with a fellow student named Romeo, now a brooding, plotting, outlaw loner in the grip of substance abuse, poverty, and rage. Their simmering conflict is a key aspect of Erdrich’s increasingly suspenseful inquiry into the repercussions of vengeance.

A brilliantly imagined and constructed saga . . .
that will stand as a defining master work
of American literature for generations to come.

The radiance of this many-faceted novel is generated by Erdrich’s tenderness for her characters, beginning with the profoundly involving primary figures. But there’s also Father Travis, crucial to The Round House and reappearing here in all his rigor, incisiveness, and unruly desires. A circle of bawdy elder women and the smart and funny sisters Snow and Josette (among the young characters who will fascinate advanced teen readers) provide comic relief and covertly wise counsel, while Peter’s extreme preparedness for the turn-of-the-millennium apocalypse offers a piquant reflection on questions of fear and faith.

LaRose is the fifteenth novel in Erdrich’s magnificent North Dakota cycle about the painful and proud legacy and intricately entangled relationships among Native Americans, whites, and people of mixed heritage, a brilliantly imagined and constructed saga of empathy, elegy, spirituality, resilience, wit, wonder, and hope that will stand as a defining master work of American literature for generations to come.

This review first appeared in the March 15, 2016, issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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