Louise Erdrich has long been an artist of the liminal, an intrepid explorer of the at once vexed and charged boundary between things conventionally thought to be opposed: past and present, romance and realism, history and fiction, spirit and body, male and female, life and death. Her new novel, the remarkable “LaRose,’’ takes place in and around an Ojibwe reservation and opens during a transitional year (1999) with a devastating boundary violation.
While hunting on the property line that separates his land in North Dakota from his neighbor’s, Landreaux shoots what he thinks is a deer but turns out to be his neighbor and friend’s son. He has killed five-year-old Dusty Ravich. Dusty’s mother, Nola, is the half sister of Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, and their two young sons, cousins, had been close playmates.
Both families are ravaged by grief and guilt, beset by “jolts of electric sorrow.” Landreaux, “a devout Catholic who also followed traditional ways,” is a recovering alcoholic, and his fatal mistake threatens to drive him back to drink. Nola becomes suicidal and wants “her husband to bludgeon Landreaux to death’’; that husband, Peter, obsessively prepares for Y2K to give himself something to think about besides Dusty. The other children in both families begin acting up and acting out.
And then, an idea for reparation emerges. Landreaux and Emmaline give their son, LaRose, to the bereaved parents, a decision rooted in a traditional practice: “It’s the old way,” Landreaux tells a disbelieving Peter and Nola, “an old form of justice.” LaRose is “a name both innocent and powerful, and had belonged to the family’s healers.” “There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years,” and the original LaRose’s story from the 1830s and 40s is interwoven throughout the present-day narrative. “In all of these LaRoses there was a tendency to fly above the earth.”
Young LaRose is indeed a magical boy, a healer, wise beyond his years, with an uncanny ability to travel between realms, communicate with animals, inanimate objects, the dead. He is both a shape-shifting border figure and intensely grounded, solid, reliable. He helps Nola keep her self-destructive impulses at bay and provides solace to his new sister, the spirited, troubled Maggie.
But if LaRose’s presence is a balm to his new family, it is also a source of continuing doubt, guilt, a sense of “disloyalty” to their dead son. Meanwhile, Emmaline “many times each day . . . question[s] . . . what they had done,” and Landreaux feels that his “family hates [him] . . . for giving away LaRose.” Ultimately, the families attempt to share “the upbringing of LaRose — a casual arrangement month by month” that comes with its own costs.
Moreover, lingering questions about the shooting remain and other questions arise. Was the death entirely an accident, or was Landreaux somehow to blame? What does the drug-addled drifter, ironically-named Romeo, know about Landreaux, and why does he harbor such a grudge against him? Will further tragedies erupt due to the characters’ unquenchable desire for vengeance? As the novel draws to a conclusion, the suspense is ratcheted up, but never at the expense of Erdrich’s reflective power or meditative lyricism.
LaRose conjures up a world of “[l]oss, dislocation, disease, addiction . . . the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history.” Erdrich’s unsparing honesty about and luminous compassion for the broken people she represents make “LaRose’’ an invigorating if at times almost unbearably painful read. And thankfully, Erdrich knows just when to leaven the story with humor — her wonderfully warm and witty depictions of three teenage girls are especially crucial in this regard.
“LaRose’’ is a story about the “phosphorus of grief” and how grief lifts or lessens. It is a meditation on the relevance of tradition, the definition of family, the durability and limits of friendship, the complex effects of “intergenerational trauma,” and the possibility for renewal out of and beyond irrevocable loss. Even in times of unbearable tragedy, moments of transcendence are possible, and “[b]rightness falls from the air.”
“LaRose’’ triumphantly concludes Erdrich’s trilogy about justice (including 2008’s “The Plague of Doves’’ and the 2012 National Book Award winner “The Round House’’) and stands on its own as one of her finest achievements. In it, Erdrich affirms again that “the fabric between realities, living and dead, [is] porous . . . This pass-between exist[s].”
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 373 pp., $27.99Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’