'LaRose' is Louise Erdrich's beautiful new novel of love, atonement, justice

How does one atone for wrong? Erdrich's characters – on a North Dakota reservation and in the nearby town – struggle to find the path forward.

LaRose By Louise Erdrich HarperCollins 384 pp.

An Ojibwe man takes aim at a deer on the edge of a farm and hits a little boy instead. In recompense, the man offers the farmer’s family his own boy to live as their son.

The traditional act of atonement binds the two families together in National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich’s simply gorgeous new novel, LaRose.

“LaRose” follows “The Round House” and 2011’s “Plague of Doves” in chronicling the lives of both members of a North Dakota reservation and the residents of the town of Pluto.

If “The Round House” focused on the repercussions of revenge, “LaRose” examines the hard work of atonement.

“I’d give my life to get Dusty back for you,” Landreaux Iron tells Peter Ravich, the farmer. “LaRose is my life. I did the best that I could do.”

The two moms are half-sisters. Emmaline Peace Iron, despite her immense love for her youngest boy, allows the recompense because she’s afraid of what will happen to Nola, who bakes birthday cakes no one wants to eat, cleans compulsively, and plans her outfit down to her underwear for the day she will hang herself in the barn.

The act of contrition deprives both of Dusty’s parents of the ability to take a revenge that seems so tantalizing. Peter Ravich can’t kill Landreaux, as much as he fantasizes about it, because of what that would do to the little boy he and his wife almost instantly love. Instead, he names his woodpile after his former friend and chops logs incessantly.

Also dragged into the drama are the other four Irons children – their foster son Hollis, Snow, Josette, and Willard, nicknamed Coochy – as well as Dusty’s older sister, Maggie, who has become a young fury under the assault of her mother’s anger.

At the novel’s heart is the extraordinary little boy who has enough love to bridge both families and not crack under the weight of the peacemaking role he was thrust into as a kindergartner. “The question is” Peter asks Landreaux. “What’s it doing to him? As long as we’re with LaRose, we’re thinking about him, and we love him.… It does help … but what’s it doing to him?”

There has always been a LaRose in the Peace family, and they all have been able to bridge worlds. Erdrich traces the family history back to the first one, originally named Mirage, who was sold as a child to a trader. This LaRose overcomes slavery, rape, and the forced assimilation of a boarding school to become a matriarch of healers and teachers.

Her daughter also spends years at a boarding school, learning how to keep her essential self safe. “She was able to amend a few things in small ways…. She was a teacher and the mother of a teacher. Her namesake daughter became the mother of Mrs. Peace. All of them learned two languages, four levels of math, the uses of plants, and to fly above the earth.”

The legacy of the boarding schools and the willful destruction of a people runs throughout the many plots of "LaRose." The children learn to write their names on hidden boards and the undersides of bus seats – anywhere the authorities can't erase them. Emmaline now serves as assistant director for a new kind of boarding school, one kept on the reservation for kids whose families are in crisis. “People didn’t want to think about boarding schools – the era of forced assimilation was supposed to be over. But then again, kids from chaotic families didn’t get to school, or get sleep, or real food, or homework help. And they’d never get out of the chaos – whatever brand of chaos, from addictions to depression to failing health – unless they got to school.”

Emmaline specializes in "heartbreak mitigation," rocking sobbing little boys, baking with moms trying to get their lives on track, and playing cards with little girls whose mom stabbed their dad, "or vice versa." She copes, in part, by relying on traditions and faith. However, that may not be enough when heartbreak visits her own carefully built, painstakingly parented family.

It’s not necessary to have read “The Round House or “The Plague of Doves” to be awed by Erdrich’s expert weaving of a family saga. But those who have will recognize familiar faces, such as Father Travis, the veteran turned priest who exorcises his PTSD with compulsive exercise and trawls dive bars for lost souls.

“Father Travis was still surprised by what [the Irons] had done…. He had heard of these types of adoptions in years past, when disease or killings broke some families, left others whole. It was an old form of justice. It was a story, and stories got to him. A story was the reason he had become a priest, and a story was why he’d not yet walked off the job.”

Also making a welcome return are Ignatia Thunder and her cronies at the nursing home, who exact a hilarious and apt revenge on Romeo Puyat, a local hustler who comes to “visit” and steal their painkillers. Emmaline’s mother, Mrs. Peace, who was everyone’s favorite teacher, lives there as well. She taught generations of children to knit, to memorize the 19th-century poem “Invictus” about overcoming adversity unbowed, and fed them cake.

Romeo and Landreaux were two of her students, who grew up together at boarding school. Their past adventures, also detailed here, left the former permanently disabled. While Landreaux is raising his former friend’s child, Romeo doesn’t see that as sufficient repayment and launches a plan for revenge (justice, he considers it).

Landreaux, meanwhile, tries to move forward without feeling that he has a right to a future. “He was not all good, would never be; yet there were slender threads of okay that felt nearly like happiness.”

When Ignatia tells LaRose an Ojibwe origin story, which also features a snake, the little boy asks, “Huh! So what’s the moral of this story?” “Moral? Our stories don’t have those! Ignatia puffed her cheeks in annoyance.”

You wouldn’t want to reduce the beauty and complexity of “LaRose” down to a moral, but let’s at least leave the original LaRose and the other ancestors with the last word.

“Sorrow eats time. Be patient. Time eats sorrow.”

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