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.
If you’ve read Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008), the name “Coutts” will probably ring a bell. In her newest book, The Round House, Erdrich returns to familiar grounds and picks up where Geraldine and Bazil Coutts left off. Now married and the parents of a twelve year old boy named Joe, the happy family’s life is shattered when Geraldine is brutally assaulted one evening somewhere within the premises of the Ojibwe reservation where they live.
When all of this happens, it’s 1988 and Joe is eager to be treated like an adult. He and his friends are barely coming of age and trying to navigate this tricky passage into adolescence. After his mother is attacked, Joe is forced to grow up quickly, regardless of how much information Bazil tries to keep from him. Meanwhile, his mother is traumatized and depressed, isolating herself from everyone and refusing to divulge any information about what happened.
Bazil is a tribal judge and feels that the attack had something to do with him; he hesitantly enlists Joe to help him pore through old case files to look for anyone who might have a serious grudge against him. What emerges are several harsh truths about life on a Native American reservation: the investigation is hindered by federal, state, and local laws (which, naturally, ties the hands of the tribal law enforcement, even though the crime happened on their land). When the attacker’s motive begin to come together, even more complex layers of injustice are added to the mix. And through it all is our young narrator: scared, angry, confused, and wanting nothing more than for his mother to feel safe again.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Audiobook Publisher/Year: HarperAudio, 2009
Narrators: Peter Francis James & Kathleen McInerney
What it is: The brutal murder of a white family on a farm in North Dakota sends an angry group of men out to the nearby Ojibwe reservation in search of the murderer. The injustice of what happens will have repercussions for years to come. Two generations later, a part-Ojibwe/part-white girl named Evalina is trying to piece together her family’s involvement in what happened.
Why I listened to it: I’d never read anything by Erdrich before, and I picked it up on a whim when I saw it at the library.
What I thought: Parts of this book were positively breathtaking–I was often stunned by Erdrich’s poetic prose. Unfortunately, I can’t say this about the book as a whole. There is a lot to keep track of: multiple genrations, multiple narrators, side plots, etc. I wonder if it would have been easier to follow along if I’d read the book because I usually have no problem juggling different characters and plots. I read somewhere that the book originally started as short stories. If that’s the case, I can see how the book turned out somewhat disjointed; read as stories, some of the chapters would have come off as phenomenal. Overall, I didn’t not like it, but it wouldn’t be the first Erdrich book I’d recommend to people.
If this book were a beverage, it would be: whiskey.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Publisher/Year: Grove Press, 2002 (reprint)
What it is: A tragicomedy about the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, offensive, haughty 30-year-old medievalist who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He’s often mistaken for a vagrant because of his unkempt appearance, and he can’t hold down a job, but that doesn’t stop him from looking down upon everyone.
Why I read it: For my Pulitzer Project.
What I thought: I kind of don’t even know what to say. Toole was a talented writer, and so much of this book is hilarious; the secondary cast of characters takes Ignatius everywhere, from jail to a second-rate strip club, to the flamboyant, wealthy gay scene in the French Quarter. The book is fantastic in small doses, but if I tried to read it for long stretches of time it started to get on my nerves. I spent most of my time wanted to strangle Ignatius, but I was also dumbfounded by the extent of his willful obtuseness. I really have to hand it to the 1981 Pulitzer voters for going so far off the beaten path and choosing Confederacy as the winner for that year.
If this book were a food, it would be: a hot dog.