LaRose by Louise Erdrich

 

★★★★☆ (4/5)

“LaRose” is an electric and haunting read by a brilliant story-teller. It is poignant, heart-breaking and full of promise of resplendent love and life. The canvas of the story is formed larose-louise-erdrichin the first few pages: Landreaux, while hunting, has accidentally killed the child of his friend, who also happens to be his neighbour. Preoccupied with torturous guilt, he follows an ancient tradition of his Indian ancestors and agrees to give his youngest boy, LaRose to the bereaved parents – a decision which affects adults and children of both families in dissimilar ways. This tragic death also reverberates through the entire reservation.

From here on follows the entwining of not just two families joined together in grief and remorse, but of communal living, where a myriad of characters come forth either in assistance or vengeance. Characters like Father Travis are on the side-lines, willing to assist the families overcome their burden, whereas characters like Romeo, who harbours a deep-seated grudge against Landreaux, aims to wreak further havoc in his life. We traverse into personal lives and histories of the children who form a life-line of this book as well as of the elders, the patients, the neighbours and ancestors. The backstory of each character provides richness to an already perceptive tale which deals with thematic concepts of love, wrongdoing, justice and nature of penance.

The stories are nestled around atonement, contrition and reparations. Erdrich uses multiple voices and characters to bring to life the living and the dead, the past and the present, the tragic and the comic, the spiritual and the corporeal world. Contradicting forces in nature are coalesced to form the rich gravy through which life in all form flows. The vein of magical realism and magical surrealism both pass through this story giving it multiple layers which can be interpreted in innumerable ways. When LaRose assumes his role as a lynchpin to both families, the process of recuperation has just begun, which sometime escalates towards another imminent tragedy or at other times snowballs to mutual goodwill and domestic tranquillity.

Here we have an indictment on contemporary gun culture, senseless deaths, reconciling compassion with self-pity, nature of war (inside and outside of oneself) as well as the natural progression of forgiveness and understanding. Gruelling coercion of mercy only brings about further complexities and one must allow the healing nature of time to work on its own. This is evident in lives of both Iron and Ravich families, where one deals with perennial loss associated with death, the other deals with intermittent loss of having to share a child for a lifetime.

“LaRose” is a poetic and lyrical tour de force, a literary masterpiece with evocative powers with an ensemble of memorable characters (especially Romeo, Maggie and the young LaRose), a story of harrowing loss and redemption. Owing to the dense narrative, as a reader I became quite fond of the reservation and its residents. Given the premise of the story, the ending comes as a triumphant relief. There is a nagging feeling of having overcome the greatest of misfortunes and emerging on the other side with renewed hope and promise.


  • The thick scars roping up his neck, twisting down in random loops, marked him on the outside and ran inside of him, too
  • but whether it was that she accepted this unspeakable gift as beauty, or whether she believed the child’s absence over time would leak the lifeblood from Landreaux’s heart, he couldn’t tell.
  • she brought LaRose to the Ravich car. LaRose got in without crying, buckled himself into the backseat. His wordless bravery choked her. As they drove away, he waved at Emmaline. He seemed to float from her on a raft of frail sticks. Or was that a dream? Every morning, she floated to consciousness on that same disintegrating raft. Many times each day, she questioned what they had done
  • The woman sprayed a little on a Kleenex, waved the tissue in front of their noses. Waited. The smell was green and dry. Faintly licorice. Maybe a hint of cloud. A trace of fresh-cut wood? Crushed grass. A rare herb in a rare forest. Nothing dark, nothing hungry. Something else, too.
  • he told himself that after Y2K the credit card companies would be so messed up by confusing 2000 with 1900 that chances were his statements would get lost. The credit card companies would vanish, the banking system, crippled, would go back to swapping gold bricks. There would be no telephones, televisions, energy companies, no automobiles except old beaters without computerized engines, no gas pumps, no air traffic, no satellites. He would communicate by radio.
  • Getting out of bed, out of a chair, changing her position, was like moving furniture
  • A few digital clocks in France read 1900. Circuits in a few places faltered and flickered. There was no panic. At some point, he put his head down and must have passed out. Dawn was sad, calm, and brimming with debt.
  • You stink, said Nola again. The dog pantingly grinned, alive to her every word.
  • I saw Dusty that day, said the dog in Peter’s mind. I carry a piece of his soul in me.
  • Her house never smelled of people’s habits. It never smelled of stale clothing, old food, or even what she was freshly cooking because she ran a hood fan that sucked the smells right up through the roof
  • Landreaux didn’t see himself from the outside the way he normally witnessed his thoughts. Somehow he’d slipped around his thoughts in that moment, and as he sat down he also took a drink
  • This was all Peter could stand to tell. About the muffled crying, nothing. About LaRose beating his head with his hands, nothing. About his secret questions whispered only to Peter, Where is my real mom?, he couldn’t tell.
  • She laughed harder. Her laughing slipped a bolt in Peter, and then they were both laughing in a sick way, both unhinged again with the same first anguish, both weeping into each other’s hair, snot dripping in the sheets.
  • The worst kind of loneliness gripped him. The kind you feel alongside another person.
  • Romeo had a caved, tubercular-looking chest, scrawny arms, a vulturine head, and perpetually stoked-up eyes.
  • The sisters sniffed and looked redeemed, like a light had been restored inside of them. They were so happy they didn’t know how to show it without seeming fake
  • Outside the circle of warmth, the snow squeaked and the stars pulsed in the impenetrable heavens
  • down, sit down! Why do you look confused? His brains are down there, in his ass. Maybe he doesn’t want to crush his thoughts.
  • That name would protect him from the unknown, from what had been let loose with the accident. Sometimes energy of this nature, chaos, ill luck, goes out in the world and begets and begets. Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence
  • All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent.
  • His tongue, a mottled fish, bulged from what must have been his mouth. He seemed to be trying to throw himself out of his body
  • Existence whined in her head like a mosquito
  • He could make out a name emphatically formed many times on the metal inside of the bus there. LaRose. LaRose. LaRose.
  • Yes, we wrote our name in places it would never be found until the building itself was torn down or burned so that all the sorrows and strivings those walls held went up in flames, and the smoke drifted home.
  • She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair
  • He was in a globe, frozen on a tiny treadmill in a little scene of a man walking to the Dead Custer, forever, through falling bits of white paper or maybe some snowlike chemical that would sift down over and over as a child turned his world upside down in its hands
  • Hard-edged triangles joined and split in an endless geometry. If this was death, it was visually exhausting
  • Girls were not named for flowers, as flowers died so quickly. Girls were named for deathless things—forms of light, forms of clouds, shapes of stars
  • How to explain that shot? He’d wish himself out of existence to take it or not take it over again. But the harder, the best, the only thing to do was to stay alive. Stay with the consequences, with his family. Take on the shame although its rank weight smothered him.
  • The sky fell, as it did each moment
  • It drove white teachers crazy. In those days, Indians rarely looked people in the eye. Even now, it’s an uneasy thing, not honest but invasive
  • She was striking—lanky and overly tall, deeply sun-beaten, her face a folded fan of vertical lines. A thick shock of white hair tipped like a crest over her forehead.
  • She was more than old, she was powerfully old
  • She turned around, her face alight with emotions the boys exactly knew: the fury and shame of kowtowing to a righteous person who controlled your destiny. Threw their goodness in your face. It wasn’t something they would ever name, but it would matter for all the rest of their days
  • The city was still sleeping, the air hollow. The water gave off a fog that carried sound up to their ears.
  • As she rode in the disorienting noise, which made speaking useless, a melting pleasure stole up in her
  • She could feel her strength casting the weakness out.
  • In English there was a word for every object. In Ojibwe there was a word for every action. English had more shades of personal emotion, but Ojibwe had more shades of family relationships
  • She had had a mystical belief in herself and it had surprised her very much to die
  • Weak as water, strong as dirt. It was taking so long to die that she had become strengthened by the effort
  • She taught her how to dream, how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream in order to save her life.
  • immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.
  • Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
  • She was a teacher and the mother of a teacher. Her namesake daughter became the mother of Mrs. Peace. All of them learned two languages, four levels of math, the uses of plants, and to fly above the earth.
  • A man’s heart, shriveled raisin, prune of loneliness, burnt clam, understood what it was to lose out on love
  • Romeo has seen the havoc that occurs when commodities of all sorts are going bad and people need to use them fast—in cafeteria the strange amount of celery, the overflow of tapioca, in clinic the medications, so useful but of fragile potency past a certain month. What if. What if there is a use-by date on a heap of war stuff?
  • sleepwalks peacefully up the hill. When he gets halfway up, he tells himself to turn and walk down. It is here that he has some trouble. The unwelcome desire to live nearly thwarts Landreaux as he gazes down into the woods where Peter is waiting
  • One day she was sitting high in a tree, pulling apart a wood tick. Something large flowed at her, ghost-silent. She flattened against the bark. Hung on. She felt fingers rake her hair lightly and the thing rushed up, soundlessly sucked into the leaves. She didn’t scare easy, but her breath squeezed off
  • In Maggie’s eyes, her mother saw the owl’s authority. In Nola’s eyes, her daughter saw the authority of the self and the self alone.
  • He came back into his body. He could not inhabit himself without her.
  • Up until Emmaline, he had been living in his sleep. Dozing on his feet yet doing a thousand things. And then she had roughly shaken him and when he dared look into her eyes he saw: together they were awake. She began to inhabit him. He felt too much. Had strange thoughts. If she left him, he would go blind. Deaf. Forget how to talk and breathe. When they argued, he turned to air. His atoms, molecules, whatever he was made of, started drifting apart. He could feel himself losing solidity. How had she done this? Sometimes at night, when she left the bed and he was anchored in half-consciousness, he couldn’t move. Terror built in him, a panicky, anxious, stifling misery that abated only when he felt her stirring about beside him again. If Emmaline had not loved him steadily in return he would have died of the experience of falling in love
  • Possibilities. Creative possibilities. He took pride in how he organized his own reality.
  • As she worked, Nola’s daily ration of sorrow dissipated into thousands of small items
  • The laugh flew out of Nola’s throat, harsh and rusty. It dissolved when it hit Peter’s chest. Nola saw it. That night, she rested her head there and closed her eyes.
  • She looks down at the balled-up tissues in her hand, not knowing how the clump got from her purse to her hand, stunned that this wave of language poured out of her and what did she say?
  • Emmaline would not check out if he did; she would survive for the kids. For herself. Also, the good stuff was in question. Emmaline had put a wall up, Landreaux thought. He even pictured it—brick but at least there were gaps, maybe windows. Sometimes she reached both hands through, unclenched, and Landreaux hurriedly clasped her from the lonely side. He understood the wall as blame for what happened. He did not understand when she said he was asleep
  • The radio and its familiar chaos flipped a pleasure switch in Maggie’s brain. Because she had her mother belted in safe beside her and LaRose safe in back, because she was in charge, she was light with relief
  • He tried to pray but his body was enthralled by a sticky, hot, beetling-red rage. The air in the room went thick and whirled with freakish energy
  • stepped into his and Nola’s bedroom. Soap and stale sleep. Nola on her back like a stone queen on a coffin
  • He hadn’t wanted to know any details. He’d had his hands full, back then, with Nola spinning off in space and Maggie clutching him like she was drowning. Then fighting him off. Then clutching him. There was no sense in looking at the paperwork of death. It would not have brought his son back. Reports were the cold logistics of death and he’d been dealing with the hot truth of grief.
  • So Romeo loves Emmaline too, thinks Father Travis, and the sudden fact that he and his friend the weasel are afflicted and exalted by the same emotion makes him raise his head and settle his eyes on Romeo
  • He tried not to rest in the cool shade of her gaze, her presence behind the mesh door
  • She folded her arms and drew into herself. Wisps of her being had dispersed and she gathered them abruptly in

    Thoughts during reading:
  • The most intense, dense beginning to any book I’ve ever read. Tragic drama unfolds within the first four pages, characters are delved into and lived through jam-packed action with little dialogue. There is a sense of general foreboding for the reader. Having never read anything from this author before, LaRose raises high expectations.
  • The central characters are astonishing in their depth and portrayal. So far the story has been incredibly interesting. An only concern is the plethora of characters of the community, making appearances, which often deviate attention with unnecessary details such as the name of the company whose lipstick one wears. Other than that, I’m hooked.
  • The violence is striking, raw. It is pulsating through the characters’ actions, either in reference to themselves or others.

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