North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence -- but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he's hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor's five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux's five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux's wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty's mother, Nola. Horrified at what he's done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition -- the sweat lodge -- for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. "Our son will be your son now," they tell them. LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new "sister," Maggie, welcomes him as a co-conspirator who can ease her volatile mother's terrifying moods. Gradually he's allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches' own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal. But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.
The LaRose history in the story begins in 1839 with Mink who came from an Ojibwe family of powerful healers. She is screeching when we meet her. She is the mother of an unkempt young girl who doesn’t speak and lies quietly wrapped in a blanket with her outside a trading post. She is the child who later hints that her name is flower, but her name is actually LaRose. As silent as the girl is, her mother is loud. She screams as she begs for trader’s milk and attempts to sell the child to Mackinnon, the man who runs the trading post. Trader’s milk appears to be an alcoholic concoction to which she is apparently addicted. Wolfred Roberts, a clerk, overhears Mink’s screams and propositions. He tries to protect the girl. He believes that Mackinnon will not harm her, but he soon realizes that he was wrong. With the help of what seems to be magic and the spirit world, the two escape together although they are chased by the rolling head of their victim. She was eleven and he was seventeen. Years pass and she gives birth to the next generation of LaRose and the line of powerful healers continues until the fifth generation with the birth of a son called LaRose. He is the last child born to Emmaline Peace and Landreaux Iron. They had not intended to name their child LaRose, but he just seemed to own the name when he was born.
We meet LaRose Iron when he is five years old. He has a playmate of the same age named Dusty Ravich. They are also cousins. Dusty’s parents are Nola and Peter. Nola is Emmaline’s half sister. They are both related to the Peace side of the family. Nola’s daughter is named Maggie for her great aunt Maggie Peace. LaRose is named for his grandmother, LaRose Peace. The two half-sisters do not get along, but the brother-in-laws are friends. Because of a tragic event which takes the life of Dusty, LaRose becomes the shared child of both families. LaRose, is an “old, young boy”. He is wiser than his years and more mature than even some adults. His counseling is patient and wise. He seems to be a very special child who is liked by all.
In 1967, Landreaux, only about 8 years old, was abandoned by his parents. He wound up in a boarding school on the Indian Reservation where he met Romeo. Romeo was bullied there, and Landreaux was his only friend. Although Romeo was a good student and was happy at school, Landreaux convinced him to run away with him. Tragedy followed them when Romeo was hurt by Landreaux in a freak accident which left him with lifetime injuries and pain. Both boys were caught and returned to the school. When Romeo returned after semi-recovering from his injuries, Landreaux ignored him. Romeo was bereft and angry.
Both Landreaux and Romeo loved their teacher, Mrs. Peace, who happened to also be Emmaline’s mother. They both had crushes on her and soon both loved Emmaline. She chose Landreaux, to Romeo’s dismay, and he resented Landreaux still further and carried a torch for Emmaline into the future. Emmaline and Landreaux were wild for awhile, but with the birth of their children, they gave up substance abuse. When, as an adult, Romeo was unable to care for his own son, Hollis, Emmaline and Landreaux raised him as their own alongside their four other children, Josette, Coochy (Willard), Snow and LaRose. Although it was an act of kindness for which Romeo should have been ever grateful, he continued to harbor resentment toward Landreaux for what he perceived were his past transgressions.
In 1999, Landreaux went out to hunt for a buck he had been watching. He aimed and shot, but instead of the buck, his aim, which was normally excellent, failed him, and a mortally wounded child fell from a tree, hit by shrapnel from the bullet. The child was Dusty Ravich. Emmaline and Landreaux were horrified. Landreaux had killed his nephew! Nola and Peter Ravich were inconsolable. Emmaline and Landreaux went into their sweat lodge to seek counsel, and their combined visions told them that they should give their own son, LaRose, to Nola and Peter to make up for their loss which Landreaux caused. It was the old tribal custom. They brought LaRose to them, and although they only meant for it to be a temporary arrangement to help Nola recover, Nola became very attached to LaRose and refused to return him. LaRose, although very young, realized over the next few years that he and Maggie, his cousin, were responsible for saving Nola from herself, for protecting her mental and fragile emotional health, for preventing her from harming herself. At first, Maggie was very cruel to LaRose and to her mother, Nola, who was very unkind to her, as well. Maggie suffered because of neglect and a lack of love. It was LaRose’s easygoing attitude, patience, and kindness that taught her the value of friendship, devotion, loyalty, love and respect, and she softened under his guidance as their relationship blossomed and their friendship grew. Even though he was very young, LaRose was able to show her a kind of love and loyalty she had never experienced before.
Father Travis Wozniak was the man they all turned to for counseling. He was a survivor of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, and that was what inspired him to become a priest. He bore emotional and physical scars from that time. He also fell in love with Emmaline. Shortly after he realized this, he was replaced by Father Dick Boner, a rather unusual name for a priest, especially under the circumstances, but perhaps apropos.
The narrative moves steadily along and all of the varied themes, abandonment, vengeance, loss, atonement, retribution, and justice, to name a few, are married in the end, but for me, the conclusion was not as satisfying as I had hoped. Although the several threads of the story were knitted together, the resolution of the many underlying issues in the story seemed to work out too neatly and felt somewhat contrived, making the novel seem more like a fairy tale. There was also a very distinct political point of view expressed by Father Travis who witnessed military violence, Romeo who loved John McCain but feared George Bush, and Hollis who was joining the National Guard to give back to his country, never thinking that he would have to serve outside the country in a war. He envisioned saving people at home. However, unknown to him, the Iraq war was looming in the future, and although the Guard had not been used in this way before, it would soon be used to send soldiers to fight outside the United States and into the Middle East.
Using Native American folklore and legends woven into the tale, the author revealed the abuse Indian tribes have historically suffered. Powerless against the more powerful White man who had plans to annihilate them, they were largely wiped out and homeless. It gave voice to the injustice and problems that Native American Indians have had to face ever since, regardless of their tribal background. They have been maligned and neglected. It also demonstrated the power of all choices, right and wrong, innocent or guilty, from all quarters, on the lives of those making them and those that are the victims of those decisions. This author brings all to our attention by merging the past with the present to illuminate the pain and suffering, the spirituality and superstition, the neglect and abandonment, the continuing struggle to achieve success in a world that had rejected and robbed the Native American Indian and condemned them to second class status. It would seem that even today, they hold true to their traditions and seek help from their spirit world to provide answers for their questions and solutions to their problems, to find the justice they continue to seek.
In spite of that, I enjoyed the book. It's a story of a family coping with life, and it also tells the history of the family going back several generations. It looks at Indian life, with the prejudices, the horrors of residential schools, and the healing powers of ancient traditions. It's well written, as are all of Ms. Erdrich's books and I'll continue to be a fan.
I hesitated over that plot summary - it sounds quite dark and heavy when stated baldly, so I want to emphasize that the prevailing tone of the work is one of hope and a celebration of familial love. Erdrich is a master at dealing with heavy themes without really weighing on the reader; there's a lot of joy and humor even as it confronts some harsh and horrifying realities. I would compare it to another recent favorite of mine, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being in this respect.
Both plotlines are expertly woven together and incredibly compelling, but the modern day storyline around LaRose and his blended family was the highlight! I loved seeing these families slowly heal - I feel like lately I've read a lot of books about trauma that can't be recovered from and its poisoning the life of the traumatized, so it's very refreshing to see a different take on the aftermath of wounds like this.
I could hear my Algonquin Grandmother Delina telling me, “Pay attention! Slow down. There’s a lot to learn here about the clash of native and European cultures and religions.”
The Irons and Raviches live on either side of the Ojibwa reservation border. Landreaux Iron and Dusty’s father, Peter had forged a respectful friendship in spite of their cultural differences. Their wives, Emmaline Iron and her half-sister Nora Ravich, however, harbor a deep seated sibling rift that has roots deep in the past. The two sisters became pregnant at the same time and their two sons, Dusty and LaRose, enjoy the purity of childhood friendship unaware of the tenuous bonds between the two families
Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwa native, is out hunting venison for his family. The novel opens with an introduction to Landreaux and provides clues to everything that happens for the remainder of the book.
"Landreaux was a devout Catholic who also followed traditional ways, a man who would kill a deer, thank one god in English, and put down tobacco for another god in Ojibwe."
"The buck turned…giving Landreaux a perfect shot… there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger. Only when he walked forward to investigate…did he understand that he had killed his neighbor’s son. He dropped his rifle and ran through the woods to the Ravich house…Landreaux [tried] to utter [Dusty’s] name. Nola had just checked, found [5-year old Dusty] gone, and was coming out to search for him when she heard the shot."
This tragedy on the border of the Ojibwe reservation in 1999 rips open the hearts and minds of both families. As each person struggles to grieve the loss of this small child, they find themselves facing much more than the loss of Dusty. Mired in their grief, they each scramble for relief from the pain.
The Raviches seek justice and the Irons seek a reprieve from the unremitting remorse and self-recrimination. Pathways to deep seated and long buried person trials are reopened in everyone and threaten to destroy what remains of their self-control and possibly their own survivals.
The shift in the story following the immediate aftermath of the tragedy threw me for a loop until I followed Grandma Delina’s advice to stop questioning things. I discovered that LaRose, the name, not merely LaRose the child, had been significant for generations and “was a name both innocent and powerful, and had belonged to the family’s healers.” Erdrich takes the reader back through time to back-light the harshness of life in colonial times and the origin of the name LaRose.
Landreaux, after spending time in his sweat lodge and fasting, determines there is only one thing he can do to make things right with the Raviches. Following old Ojibwe tradition, he gives his favored son, a child that has always seemed to be on earth for a purpose, to the Raviches to replace Dusty.
Through the ensuing drama of this decisive action, an old enemy threatens Landreaux’s future, the parish priest struggles to serve his flock, the remaining characters rise and fall through tough times before reaching an unexpected but in my opinion that completely satisfactory conclusion. Things felt wrapped up too quickly.
In the end I found it hard to rate the book. There were distractions that I thought muddy things such as Peter’s obsession with the end of the world at midnight on Dec 31, 1999. I wasn’t sure Emmaline’s and Father Travis’ tryst was necessary. Nola’s misplaced anger directed at her daughter, Maggie, was hard reading.
It was a solid read. Fans of Erdrich’s will like the book very much.
Not that it was easy, and not that it was a decision that could stick forever.
The mothers of the two boys are half-sisters who hardly speak to each other despite the closeness of their sons and husbands. Nola, Dusty's mother, has one other child, a daughter who is entering her prime teen-brat years. LaRose's mother, Emmiline, on the other hand, has four other children, including the one they took in as a boy. The question now is whether either of the two families will be able to survive the loss of their sons.
LaRose is a novel about forgiveness and how far it can be stretched before reaching its breaking point, and Erdrich tells her story beautifully. As the months go by, and the gifting of LaRose to Dusty's family becomes more one of sharing the boy, the two families grow closer than ever before - especially the children. Emmiline's daughters take the slightly younger Maggie Ravich under their wings and do their best to keep her from going astray. Pete and Landreaux (the fathers) manage to rekindle a friendship of sorts, and even if it is not as strong a friendship as it had been before the accident, they seem to be moving it in that direction. And if Nola and Emmiline (the mothers) find it difficult to communicate or to be around each other, well that's nothing new, is it?
But there's always a fly in the ointment, and in this case it's a fly with a deadly grudge against Landreaux Iron going back all the way to childhood. Romeo (the fly) still walks with an obvious limp resulting from a childhood fall he blames on Landreaux, and he is determined to make Landreaux finally suffer as much as he has. The man may be a drunkard and a pill-popper, but when it comes to deviousness, Romeo is rather brilliant, and when he convinces Pete that Landreaux is hiding the truth about what really happened on the morning Dusty was killed, it appears that everything the two families have achieved together is going to be destroyed.
All of this, as usual in a Louise Erdrich novel, takes place on or around a Native American reservation that seems to be almost a separate world unto itself despite the changes brought about by modern times. Erdrich surrounds her central characters with a supporting cast of characters that is equally compelling and memorable. This especially includes the original "LaRose," an Indian girl who was bought by a brutal mountain man, and whose story is told in a recurring sequence of flashbacks throughout the novel. (Each generation of Emmiline's family has had a "LaRose" in it ever since, and her young son carries the name for his generation.).
Louise Erdrich won the 2015 National Book Award for The Round House, but LaRose just may be every bit the equal of that very fine novel. This is one not to be missed.
LaRose learns to accept his new role and seems to understand that he is the medicine that tries to heal the two families. Various characters are intertwined with the narrative telling many different stories. It is through these subplots that a broader picture is presented. There is Romeo, who steals bits of information from his work at the hospital so that he can hopefully exact a revenge against Landreaux, who was his best friend. "Romeo had a caved, tubercular-looking chest, scrawny arms, a vulturine head, and perpetually stoked-up eyes. His hair had started falling out and his ponytail was a limp string. He flipped the string behind him with the flat of his hand, as though it were a lush rope. The day was bright. He had hoped to start the morning with beer to dim the sunshine, but of course he couldn’t do that in front of his sponsor. " His sponsor is Father Tracy, who appeared in Round House, the Vin Diesel-like, ex Marine priest, who runs AA meetings while trying to stay sober and dealing with his love for another man's wife. He is the counselor for all problems since " THE ONE PSYCHOLOGIST for a hundred miles around was so besieged that she lived on Xanax and knocked herself out every night with vodka shots." Probably my favorite character was Maggie, who goes from the cold hearted, mean spirited teenager whose brother was killed, to being protective of her suicidal mother and gets a new start when LaRose's sisters welcome her into their new school and teach her the arts of volleyball, and contraception. And then there is LaRose, the magical child who can go to the spot where his friend was killed and commune with the elder spirits who can speak to him. He is one of the five LaRose's who through the generations have always been special. The first, who also takes a part in the narrative, is able to fight off tuberculosis and this magic prompts a doctor to enshrine her bones for science, bones that the family wants returned. These stories capture the reader and the writing makes the journey worth taking. It even made my too few hours of sleep worth missing.
Many new insights for me into the Native American culture.
Landreaux is married to Emmaline. Their youngest child is LaRose, a well-loved boy who has a family name, handed down each generation. Emmaline's half-sister, Nola, is married to Peter. They live nearby and have a son the same age as LaRose, named Dusty.
One day while out hunting, Landreaux accidentally shoots Dusty, who dies.
All four adults are berefit. Landreaux is cleared by the police but not by his own consciousness. Wanting to make amends and perhaps hoping to be forgiven, Landreaux and Emmaline follow an old custom. They give LaRose to Nola and Peter to share. The five-year-old spends part of his time with his birth family, including two teenage girls, an older brother and a boy who they have taken in. That boy, Hollis, is the son of Romeo, an old friend of Landreaux's. They are a loving bunch. The Ojibwe family work hard and take care of each other.
Over at the other house, there is only Maggie. She is a teenager who is having to grow up very fast. She knows her mother Nola is having a horrific time coping, even more than her kind-hearted, white father, Peter. Maggie finds it easy to be mean. When some of the loutish boys at her white school attack her, she goes right after them. It's an incident that will have repercussions throughout the novel.
Repercussions carry the narrative. The way the characters all react to Dusty's death and LaRose's new situation living with both families, the way Romeo resents something that happened between him and Landreaux when they were boys, even the way Emmaline's ancestor, the original LaRose, lived, are not isolated incidents.
As Erdrich writes about a character at one point:
The story would be around him for the rest of his life. He would move in the story. He couldn't change it.
That notion fits in well with the idea of belonging. Every character, even Father Travis, who has played a role in other Erdrich novels, tries to find a way to belong. It's not just a matter of fitting in, with the connotation of not being one's own true self. That's what happened to many Native Americans when they were sent to boarding schools to "kill the Indian, and save the man", as the founder of the horrific Carlisle school wrote.
One thing that was not killed in this story is the deeply spiritual side of the characters. From the original LaRose to the siblings of the LaRose in this story, which takes place in the run-up to the beginning of the Iraq War, souls and their journeys have their voices heard.
The boarding school trauma and repercussions from various characters having been sent away to them are an important aspect of the story. Just as in The Round House, when Erdrich weaved in the horrors of what white man laws have done to Native American women, boarding schools are an integral part of who the characters are.
The issues and their impact are serious in Erdrich's work. But she is not a dour novelist. There is much to celebrate in her work, and her characters are the kind to care about because of their joys as well as their sorrows. The spirit of LaRose, a boy wise beyond his years, graces this work even in the pages in which his character does not appear.
The reader is immersed in the lives of a small community and all of its strengths and weaknesses. The weave of lives is complicated and close-woven and exposed. Erdrich uses all of the senses to bring a setting to life. I can't think of any other book I've read that presents such complete descriptions of smell to describe a forest or kitchen setting.
Mixing Native American culture with some magical realism, Indian folklore, customs and some beautiful prose is a hallmark of Erdrich's work. She takes a heartbreaking scenario and uses a broad reach to show the reader the impact on all involved. This young LaRose is a very special person, actually the fifth Larose in his bloodline as we learn in various back stories of the other LaRoses. Loved reading the stories of this families lineage, the wonderful characters who bore this name and their amazing abilities. In the present day this young man will try to overcome the obstacle of belonging to two different families, trying to save everyone involved and becoming the unifying presence in their grief. Grief is very much a theme in this novel, grief and its effects on all. In the end a act to prevent a tragedy will prevent a larger tragedy later in the book.
The characters change throughout this book, both families but also a man named Romeo who was at a boarding school with Landreaux. He gave his own son to the Irons to raise and has much to forgive and atone for himself. All these separate stories are pulled together masterfully by books end. A book where there are really no bad guys, just people who have made bad decisions or have been touched by fate.
ARC from publisher.
At the same time, a local "friend" of Landreux's, Romeo, is planning revenge against Landreux who accidentally injured him years ago and married Emmaline, whom Romeo was in love with. Romeo is addicted to prescription drugs and steals from the hospital where he is an orderly. Things are complicated, no one is happy including the local ex-Marine priest, Father Travis who is in love with Emmaline.
Sometimes the writing is just to flowery and dramatic for me. There is just enough of what I guess is magical realism to make it just weird in places.
I really wanted to like this book but I just couldn’t sustain an interest in these characters or their story. Perhaps it was the jumps from past to present or present to indigenous tale or family to family, I just didn’t care.
The whole premise of giving away a child (and then taking him back - sort of) just didn’t seem believable. Emmaline never really seemed to be a “real” person, just a non-entity. LaRose was too good to be true. Nola was too submerged in grief to be interesting. Maggie was my favorite character and the most believable. I couldn’t understand why anyone would believe anything Romeo said.
I have read other books by Erdrich and liked them. This one was just a disappointment.
3 of 5 stars for good writing, poor story
Landreaux Iron is out hunting one day and finds a magnificent buck close to home. Just as he shoots it his neighbour's son, Dusty, drops out of a tree above the buck and into the line of fire. Dusty is killed instantly and Landreaux feels horrible. Dusty was the same age as his own son, LaRose, and the two often played together. Dusty's father, Peter, is a good friend of Landreaux and Dusty's mother, Nola, is his own wife's half-sister. Landreaux remembers that in the Ojibway history, children were often given to families who had lost their own child so he takes LaRose to Peter and Nola for them to raise. LaRose is a special boy. He misses his own mother and father but he learns to love Peter and Nola and especially Maggie, Dusty's older sister. He also has an ability to see and talk with the spirits of people who have died, including Dusty. With time the two families learn how to share custody of LaRose and accept each other. The fly in the ointment is provided by Romeo, a broken man, addicted to pain killers, who used to be a good friend to Landreaux. He blames Landreaux for his present circumstances and learns information that he thinks will turn Peter against Landreaux.
Another enjoyable book from Erdrich.
LaRose begins with heartbreak. While hunting a deer that Landreaux Iron has been tracking all season, he accidentally shoots his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. This is not a spoiler, it happens on page two. To make amends, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline follow a tradition of their ancestors, and give their own young son LaRose to the Ravich family in atonement, as an “old form of justice”. Young LaRose steps up to the role, helping to heal the hearts of both families.
The roots of the story go back to the Ojibwe culture that Erdrich herself hails from, and is the story of families and tragedies that span generations.
As we come to find out, the accidental shooting was not the first tragedy, and LaRose is descended from a long line of healers, back to the original LaRose. Tragedies follow the LaRose lineage, from the selling of the first LaRose in the 1800s to a trader, through boarding schools, sexual abuse, tuberculosis, and the desecration of remains. LaRose is a name that has been passed through five generations, and in each generation, the name is given to one who has a connection to the spirit world.
But this is not a story about grief and tragedy. It is a story of love and redemption, about the way people live, and how they rebuild their lives back together. Louise Erdrich’s story acknowledges that, to many American Indians, the pain and pleasures of the past are not forgotten, but become the foundation on which the present is built. In the novel, this is portrayed through the very home of the Iron family.
Erdrich provides a rich backstory spanning generations, in which the reader gets a better idea of how the parallel stories form and influence the present.
One theme present in the story of the earlier generations of LaRose, is the difference between the Ojibwe values and the American culture under which the Ojibwe had to live. This is specifically highlighted in the boarding school experiences. One of the boarding schools mentioned in the novel, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, existed only a few miles away from where I grew up. As an adult, I was shocked to first become aware of its existence when visiting the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. At the time, I was astonished that the Carlisle School never made an appearance in the history books of my high school. A slightly older, wiser me now knows better. I now actively work to bring the stories and histories that are often unheard by white Americans to the forefront, at least with my own daughter.
LaRose is a powerful exploration of justice and reparation. A novel incredibly difficult to review but easy to love. I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Erdrich’s earlier work.