Monday, June 6, 2016
I've read lots of Erdrich's writing--novels and short stories--over the years. Several of her stories were in literature anthologies I taught. She writes the kind of Native American literature, like Sherman Alexie, that remains true to the culture while touching such universal cords.
One of the benefits of living in Nashville is the frequency of author readings. The Nashville Public Library presents Salon@615 regularly, with special thanks to Parnassus Books, the wonderful store author Ann Patchett owns with partner Karen Hayes. In May Erdrich appeared with author Jane Hamilton, another favorite of mine. Their tag-team reading, discussion, and Q&A were such fun.
I had already started reading LaRose, and her reading from a later chapter made me eager to get back to the book. The book opens with a tragic hunting accident by Landreaux Iron, killing the five-year-old son of his neighbor Peter Ravich and his wife, sister to Landreaux's wife Emmaline. Following "the old ways," the Irons bring their own five-year-old son LaRose to the Raviches, a trade that separates the two couples but brings their children closer.
This book demands a slow thoughtful read, particularly by anyone interested in writing, because of the deft way Erdrich handles the chronology of the tale. She moves back and forth, bringing in the story of the first LaRose in the family, one of a long line of family members with special gifts. She also weaves in the many secondary characters--Romeo, a ne'er-do-well with a grudge against Landreaux from their childhood; Maggie, the surviving child of the Raviches, full of anger toward her parents mingled with a need to watch and protect; the children in the Iron household; the reservation's elderly, many cared for by Landreaux.
Throughout the novel, Erdrich gives an unblinking look at the best and worst of life on and around the Ojibwa reservation and even a shocking piece by Frank Baum (of Ox fame) calling for the annihilation of Native American tribes.
As Jane Hamilton noted, Erdrich can deal with such serious topics while using such lovely humor in her works. Even the story's antagonists had a redeeming side. Like the old Shakespearean comedies, I hoped they achieved repentance rather than destruction. (Hamilton also noted Erdrich's skillful sex scenes.)
Without over distilling, I have to say this is a story of redemption and family. Each character was so carefully drawn and revealed, their back stories making clear their present characters. What results is a haunting story worth reading--and reading again.