Like a couple of its predecessors, Louise Erdrich’s newest book, LaRose, returns to the Ojibwe territory of North Dakota. It begins with a fatal tragedy: while hunting, Landreaux Iron shoots and kills his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. The neighbor, Peter Ravich, is Landreaux’s best friend, and their sons were best friends. Dusty’s death is promptly ruled an accident, but the two families are left in pieces. Landreaux, a recovering alcoholic, is devastated. He’s been cleared by the law, but his grief is pulling him towards a different kind of atonement.
Quite simply, he wants to die. Peter’s wife, Nola, who happens to be Landreaux’s sister-in-law, also wants him to die. Her anger, it seems, is the only thing keeping her going. Instead, Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, goes with him to their sweat lodge to pray. When it’s all over, they’ve come to an agonizing decision on how they’ll atone for Dusty’s death. As per ancient custom, they’ll give their own five-year-old son, LaRose, to the Raviches. “Our son will be your son now,” they inform the bereaved couple.
Peter is both horrified and incensed; do they really think Dusty can be so easily replaced? Nola, however, is both glad to see the hated Irons in so much pain and pleased to have a child to lavish attention on once again; now that her anger is giving way to grief, she’s not so far from suicidal thoughts herself. Their daughter, Maggie, is confused and resentful. She begins acting out in inappropriate ways, earning nothing but rebuke from her mother. Poor LaRose is left to carry much more weight than any five-year-old should.
This all just skims the surface. Peripheral characters from the town contribute to significantly to the plot. An alternating timeline that goes all the way back to the first LaRose from the 1800s also lends a historical perspective to the Iron family’s grief; the essence of this second timeline can actually be applied to current events and the ongoing wrongs that Native Americans have suffered. The book is slow to unwind, introspective rather than plot-driven, but it is a beautiful exploration of tradition, grief, and redemption.
LaRose was published in May 2016 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.