Louise Erdrich’s brutally beautiful “LaRose” is one of a handful of recent novels set in 1999. This novel begins as did Erdrich’s last novel, “The Round House,” with a catastrophe.
In some ways, the end always seems at hand, what with wars and environmental peril. But in 1999, many folks were planning for doomsday, stocking their shelves with canned goods and supplies.
Of Peter Ravich, one such character preoccupied with the millennium, Erdrich writes: “Ravich thought that something would happen, but not what did happen.”
What did happen is every parent’s worst nightmare, compounded. Peter’s 5-year-old son, Dusty, is accidentally killed by Peter’s best friend, Landreaux Iron, in a freak hunting accident. “Dusty’s hair had been a scorched blond, the same color as the deer,” Erdrich writes.
Grief is bound up with betrayal and friendship. But there’s more. Because Landreaux is married to Emmaline, the half-sister of Nola — Peter’s wife and Dusty’s mother — grief is further tangled in kinship. The aggrieved parents are denied the luxury of uncomplicated blame.
Landreaux and Emmaline and their families are Ojibwe. Peter is not native and Nola is half native. They live on a farm just outside reservation land. The shooting occurs on the border.
The catastrophe is the point where life divides into “before” and “after.” In Erdrich’s fiction, the “after” is cast in prose so layered with blistering, tender truths and bittersweet wisdom, the reader feels caught in a spell.
This story is trademark Erdrich, the new mixed with the old. After the unspeakable loss, Landreaux and Emmaline do the unthinkable. They bring their youngest child, LaRose, to Nola and Peter to make reparations: “Our son will be your son now.”
The reservation’s priest is the handsome and tortured Father Travis, a familiar character from “The Round House.” He reflects: “He had heard of these types of adoptions in years past, when disease or killings broke some families, left others whole. It was an old form of justice. It was a story, and stories got to him. A story was the reason he had become a priest, and a story was why he’d not yet walked off the job.”
LaRose, the last of Landreaux and Emmaline’s five children, is also the fifth LaRose in their combined ancestry and from a long line of healers, and the only male LaRose. He is anguished to be torn from his birth family.
Peter, his new father, is sensitive to his homesickness. But he sees that the boy, the same age as Dusty, is having a healing effect on the grieving Nola. Peter proposes that the two families share LaRose, so the boy becomes a gateway between families and between cultures.
When his new sister, the intense Maggie, reveals to LaRose that Nola is suicidal, LaRose not only agrees to watch Nola but also begins to safeguard her. He empties all substances he thinks she could use to harm herself, he unloads guns, and he throws away all ropes.
“There was so much rope around — here and there, in Peter’s end-of-the-world stash,” Erdrich writes.
Thus the child LaRose assumes adult responsibilities, as does the prickly Maggie, as they both watch over Nola. Their watchfulness has a mending effect on Nola, who first pretends at normalcy and then begins to inhabit it, as does Maggie.
“LaRose” is told with aching understanding by Erdrich, who has great affection for her characters. This timeless 15th novel stands as one of Erdrich’s best: comprehending and comprehensive, full of cascading, resonant details punctuated with spiky humor.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Topeka.
“LaRose,” by Louise Erdrich (373 pages; Harper; $27.99)