Fences can be used to keep danger out or keep danger contained. When one Native American man kills the son of his white neighbor at the reservation boundary, is it an accident or vengeance for centuries of oppression? LaRose, the novel, occurs at the intersection of Native American Ojibwe and contemporary, settled American culture and is written by Louise Erdrich, a descendant of both peoples. Below are some of my thoughts about the history and the literature. If you’ve read the novel and have different opinions, I would love to discuss them with you in the comments here or on YouTube. Click to watch the video where I share my commentary.
I host the Runwright Reads Book Club on my YouTube channel. Its focus is on reading prize-wining books and talk about their reach and whether they are as outstanding as the judges thought.
February’s choice was The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Man Booker Prize 2016)
The March pick is LaRose by Louise Erdrich (National Book Critics Circle Award 2016)
The premise of LaRose comes about when two half sisters, Emmaline and Nola, marry two very different men – Emmaline marries the Ojibwe Indian Landreaux, a reformed alcoholic who she’s known since childhood when he was a student of her mother’s and with whom she shares a past rooted in teenage rebellion and experimentation, but that has now matured into middle aged marriage and parenthood. Nola marries a white man named Peter Ravich and they live on the opposite side of the reservation boundary with their two mixed-race children, Dusty and Maggie, who naturally inherit some of the conflicts of the cultural intersection. While there seems to be no love lost between the sisters and the fact that the reservation limits establishes their social experiences, their husbands are friends and their 5-year-old sons are playmates. One day, Landreaux is out hunting and accidentally kills his wife’s nephew, Dusty. When he and his wife consult their ancestral spirits, they decide that their penance will be to give up their son to replace the dead boy. So they deliver their son, LaRose, to the neighbors, who although they are mourning, accept the gift.
Eventually, the boy begins to be shuttled back and forth as they try to share him, like a child of a broken marriage being taken out of the home and sent back for weekend visitations. And that is indeed the boy LaRose’s role. Named after the healers in his mother’s lineage, his job is not just to heal the mourning family but to heal all the broken characters, which if the stereotypes are to be considered, all the characters, native American and white missionaries alike, all need to be healed.
Partial list of characters and their complications:
- Boy LaRose, 5 years old, the sacrifice
- Landreaux, LaRose’s father and accidental killer, a recovering (?) alcoholic and drug addict.
- Emmaline, LaRose’s mother who has to pay a price for a crime she doesn’t commit
- Josette, Snow, Coochy and Hollis, LaRose’s older siblings
- Dusty, 5 years old, deceased victim of the hunting accident
- Nola, Dusty’s mother, devout Catholic contemplating suicide
- Peter Ravich, Dusty’s father, Y2K fanatic
- Maggie, Dusty’s sister
- Father Travis, a priest contemplating breaking his vows
- Romeo, Landreaux’s childhood friend, functional (?) drug addict and petty criminal
- LaRose # 1 a.k.a. Mirage, sold into slavery
- LaRose # 2, victim of the “white man’s” disease
- LaRose # 3, also victimized
- LaRose # 4 a.k.a. Mrs. Peace whose life is anything but peaceful
I admired the complication of the initial plot but felt like there were too many distractions from side characters. Within these 372 pages, every character had a backstory that apparently we needed to know intimately. From Father Travis’s bar hops to meet the sinners where they were but eventually yielding to the bottle himself, to learning not just the names of the tormentors who ganged up on Maggie, but also following them home to see how they interacted with their parents afterwards, to following Romeo each time he showed up at a funeral to steal drugs from the deceased person’s medicine cabinet. A lot happens in this novel and the alternating timelines and narratives builds a mosaic that is quite interesting if you can follow it.
The overarching themes discussed are loss, forgiveness, the conflict between tradition and religion, and feminine strength. While the immediate loss is the death of a son and brother, there are ripples of loss that widen to the family of the replacement child, the threat of contemplated suicide and acts of vengeance and what that would look like for the survivors. Children are sacrificed in several ways – sold into slavery, recruited to distant boarding schools or given away for better opportunities. There is comparison between the dead who haunt the living like ghosts, reminding them of past sins, and the body that is stolen and thus cannot be properly mourned. All these situations leave broken hearts in the wake and most have no real resolution except as the characters learn to forgive.
There is an interesting quote about the author that appears in the NY Times review of the book:
Throughout her work, Erdrich shows how her Native American characters took from the white man what could be of use, while holding on to the parts of their heritage that would enable them to survive.
This intersection between tradition and contemporary religion is discussed in how Landreaux and his wife both consult the priest and smoke herbs to get into a trance to commune with their ancestral spirits for guidance on how to move forward. However, we see this conflict as well with how Father Travis develops a bond with the Ojibwe that almost violates his priestly assignment. So even when he prays, he isn’t sure who he’s praying to so he talks about categorizing God and the different revelations of Him in war, recovery and intercession for the natives.
There is another read ‘em and weep quote that makes its way into the book and this one is from L. Frank Baum who is known for writing the Oz series for children. This was when Baum was editing a newspaper and said that genocide of the Native Americans was the only way to prevent them not taking revenge on us for what we did.
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. (Source:Wikipedia)
L. Frank Baum was a trader who had gone to live and interact with native people and this comment might have been written to shed light on the wrongs committed by the whites but it also forces analysis of who the reservation boundaries are designed to protect and what happens when they are crossed. So it makes it that much more interesting that the main event of this book and indeed how the conflict begins, is that Landreaux is at the boundary, killing someone on the other side.
LaRose was a thought provoking read. It wasn’t my favorite while I was immersed in the story, maybe because I retched at some of the despicable attitudes presented but talking about its structure more definitely brings greater appreciation for what the author accomplished with this compelling fictional story.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts if you read LaRose with me for the book club. There are lots of relationships that I didn’t discuss here because I don’t want to spoil anything if you’re still reading but let’s talk in the comments.
Would you like to see more of my notes on this book?
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April selections for the Runwright Reads Book Club
You might also enjoy reading these other discussions about LaRose