My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Louise Erdrich is a national treasure. That's my considered opinion. Every book of hers that I've read has shone with the light of a transparent power, a use of language that is deceptively plain but rich and transformative. Like her Native American ancestors, it seems that she has taken from the anglo culture and language that which she can use, but she has retained the best parts of her heritage that help her to make sense of those things and to keep them from overpowering the sensibilities of the unique society from which she came. She does it all again in LaRose, her latest novel.
LaRose is the third book in a sort of loose trilogy that started with The Plague of Doves, continued with The Round House and now reaches (perhaps) a conclusion with this book. Or perhaps there will be more books set in this community of the Indian reservation, a place where different characters and their ancestors recur and where the past seems a part of the present. As Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." It was true in Faulkner's books and it is true in Erdrich's books, as well.
The title character of this current book is a young boy, five years old when we meet him, who is descended from generations of female LaRoses. He is the fifth in a line of LaRoses in his family and, in time, we meet them all. Soon after the beginning of the story, we go back to 1839 and the first LaRose, who was sold to a white man who raped her. Ultimately, she played a part in his murder, and she achieved a happier future, finding love, romance, marriage, and family. But she also suffered for many years with tuberculosis and when she died in the care of white scientists, those scientists stole her bones and put them on display. Generations of her family fought to have those bones returned to her community.
But back to the fifth LaRose, who is five years old in 1999 when fears of Y2K - remember that? - were abroad in the land.
LaRose's father goes hunting one day and finds the buck that he wishes to kill to feed his family. He sights the animal with his rifle, but as he pulls the trigger, there is a blur between him and the deer and the deer runs away. He has hit something but it wasn't the buck. To his horror, he finds that he has shot a child. It is Dusty, the five-year-old son of his best friend and neighbor and the playmate of his son, LaRose.
LaRose's father is a home health aide, a beloved and respected member of his community, but the question which the book asks is, can a person do the worst thing possible and still be loved? This man has done the worst thing possible in killing an innocent child. Can his community forgive him or will he be ostracized?
He searches for a way to make atonement and finds a possible answer in the traditions of his people. He convinces his wife that they must give their own son to the parents of the dead child as a replacement for that child. (Erdrich notes in her postscript that such transfers did occasionally happen.)
The transfer is made and LaRose becomes a kind of ambassador between the two families, working to alleviate the suffering of both. He has the gift of healing and of seeing into the world where the spirits of the dead dwell, and the act of sharing this special child sets in motion a chain of events that will, in the end, transform the lives of all it touches.
In her last book, The Round House, we saw the workings of revenge/justice. In LaRose, Erdrich explores the other side of that coin - forgiveness. She answers the question of whether a person can still be loved after doing the worst thing possible with a resounding "Yes!"
There are so many rich and wonderful characters in this book. I cannot even attempt to mention them all here, but Erdrich's writing makes splendid use of all those multiple voices in telling this story. We get to know each of them and to respect them as individuals and as part of a larger community that values and cares for them, even the ones with messed up lives, usually ruined by drugs and/or alcohol.
Erdrich brings us her unique perspective of a culture which the larger American society has sought in its worst moments to annihilate. She shows us that that culture is still standing, still nurturing its people, and that we are all richer for it.
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