The take-away from Louise Erdrich’s recent tales set in Upper Midwest Indian country seems to be this: Never underestimate the power of boys. They have the ability to ferret out your deepest secrets, and they can save you from your vilest propensities.
In Erdrich’s previous novel, the National Book Award-winning “The Round House,” 13-year-old Joe Coutts sets out to identify and track down his mother’s rapist. In her new novel, “LaRose,” 10-year-old LaRose Iron mediates between families nearly destroyed by the accidental death of his best friend, Dusty Ravich.
Three years before, LaRose’s father, Landreaux, had mistakenly shot Dusty, while stalking a deer. Landreaux and Dusty’s father, Peter, next-door neighbors on the edge of a North Dakota Indian reservation, have been hunting and fishing pals for years. Now will they become enemies? Will revenge take over Peter’s life, as grief ravages his wife, Nola?
When the Irons turn to a traditional Indian solution — giving up LaRose to the Raviches as penance — the stunned Raviches agree to take the boy in. An unlikely, if not preposterous, premise for a plot, you might think, but will it work?
Yes, indeed, if Louise Erdrich is the writer in question. She makes of this Solomonic decision and its aftermath a scalding, heartbreaking drama. In brief, intense scenes, she charts with precision the infinite varieties of pain and loss, guilt and regret.
Ever so slowly, Nola heals while LaRose’s mother, Emmaline, suffers in her own way, until she can no longer bear the strain and suggests that the two families share the boy. That Nola and Emmaline are half-sisters with little love for each other only adds to the tension. Nola regards the college-educated Emmaline’s indifference toward her as arrogance.
Meanwhile, their children must adapt to ever-changing family constellations. Snow and Josette Iron, high-school volleyball stars, eventually make the younger Maggie Ravich their project, transforming her from preteen screw-up to confident teen. Maggie, in turn, will tutor LaRose in surprising ways.
I’m one of those Erdrich enthusiasts who nonetheless balks at her penchant for embellishing stories with traditional Indian sorcery. In this case, LaRose is the fourth to bear his name, all of whom were women healers able to fly and defy other laws of physics. (In flashbacks filled with their magic, we meet all of these ancestors.) But he’s the first male to bear this feminine name, a fact that Erdrich never explains and, unaccountably, never results in teasing from other schoolboys.
Circling around Landreaux, like the evil flying heads of Indian legend, is Romeo Puyap. A lonely bachelor and secret druggie, he is marginal in a community where Landreaux has become a respected family man. As boys in an Indian boarding school, they had been best buddies — until their attempt to run away resulted in Romeo’s crippling injuries, which he blamed on Landreaux. And he’s always resented that Landreaux married the woman he fancied. He’s bent on revenge.
In their spiritual lives, the reservation people freely mix traditional beliefs with Catholicism. Landreaux, for instance, takes to the sweat lodge to expiate his guilt, as well as to the confessional booth. There, Father Travis, a white ex-Marine revered in the community, bears witness to everyone’s pain, including Romeo’s.
LaRose begins the story as a cipher but gains prominence and a voice as he grows older. By the time of Erdrich’s sentimental ending, he is a conscious actor employing his powers for the greater good. “I got some spirit helpers,” he tells Maggie, “I know what to do.”
I can forgive Erdrich for that shiny resolution, since the rest of the novel is way too good. All of its characters are evoked with painstaking care. It burns with the intensity of souls starved for love or shattered by death. And here and there, Erdrich throws in some Indian humor, an ever-present balm in the presence of misfortune.
I’ll never forget Erdrich’s tears in 1984 as she accepted the fiction award from the National Book Critics Circle in New York City for her haunting first novel, “Love Medicine.” From that moment on, she has presented us with a splendid panorama of Native-American life unprecedented in our literary history, forever changing Americans’ sense of who they are and what they have been.
Now there are 16 novels, plus short stories and poems, honoring her heritage, including those elements of magic that I can’t allow into my worldview. In any case, Louise Erdrich will continue her mission of sure-handed storytelling and elegant prose.