In Louise Erdrich’s new novel, “LaRose,” a North Dakota man horrified by his inadvertent killing of a neighbor’s son offers his own boy to the grieving family as a kind of solace. Erdrich appears Monday, May 16, at Town Hall Seattle.
by Louise Erdrich
Harper, 373 pp., $27.99
“LaRose,” the latest novel from National Book Award-winner Louise Erdrich (“The Round House”), starts on such a spare, terse note that it makes you hope for great things.
Set between 1999 and 2003, it tells the tale of two North Dakota families — one white, one Native American — whose lives are undone by a hunting accident. Landreaux Iron, tracking a buck in the woods near his home, takes aim — and winds up shooting his neighbor’s young son, Dusty. In an agony of conscience, he turns to tribal tradition and, with his wife Emmaline’s reluctant consent, offers his own 5-year-old son, LaRose, to the boy’s bereaved parents: “Our son will be your son now.”
Peter and Nola Ravich accept the Irons’ sacrifice with misgivings, and they find the presence of Dusty’s former playmate in their home “both comforting and unnerving.” The formerly close relationship between the families inevitably becomes a minefield of guilt and raw pain.
The author of “LaRose” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 16, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 and available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
Instead of sticking closely with these events, however, Erdrich increasingly piles on peripheral characters and incidents, expanding the novel’s scope at the expense of digging deeper into its central story. Her storytelling instincts, so fine and sharp in her short fiction (and starting with her award-winning 1984 debut, “Love Medicine”), succumb to sprawl.
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To be sure, there are some fine moments in “LaRose.” The book nails the essence of Nola’s grief for her dead son when she realizes that she’s looking forward to the technological doomsday that Y2K may bring. The reason: “She would not have to keep pretending to get better.”
Her vicious lashing out at her surviving child and her desperate coddling of LaRose (as if that might bring Dusty back) feel on target, too. Peter’s stoic attempts at dealing with the situation and the Irons’ conflicted regrets at handing over LaRose offer drama enough for an entire novel.
Unfortunately, “LaRose” is saddled with other concerns that, if not entirely extraneous, feel like clutter.
There are supernatural flashbacks to the first LaRose, an 11-year-old Ojibwe girl whose alcoholic mother sold her to an abusive fur trader in exchange for booze. The girl, after helping to murder him, is pursued by his ghostly severed head across the Midwest. (Erdrich’s magical-mythical touches sometimes achieve liftoff and sometimes feel labored.)
Landreaux’s boyhood years in a Catholic boarding school, where the teachers work at “eliminating savagery” in their Native American students, are more realistically recounted and explain the origins of his toxic relations with his old school friend Romeo, now an opioid-addled wreck out to ruin him. But this also feels like a topic for a different book.
Erdrich tackles plenty of other worthy issues: the way tuberculosis ravaged the first LaRose’s family, the buildup to the Iraq war in 2002-2003, the stealing of Native American remains for the sake of scientific research. Too many passages, though, seem like filler. The biggest problem is LaRose himself, who, rather than coming off as an actual boy coping with being shuttled between two troubled households, is more of an emblem. (“I’m not just any kid,” he says. “I got some spirit helpers.”)
By its end, “LaRose” feels more scattered than symphonic.