by Clay Smith | Feb-27-2017
In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Clay Smith offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (Harper).
Louise Erdrich starts her latest novel LaRose with an incident other, less assured novelists might work up to with some throat clearing. On the second page, Landreaux Iron, a father of five, “all of whom he tried to feed and keep decent,” accidentally shoots his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty, on the Native American reservation in rural North Dakota where they live. According to Native American custom as Landreaux sees it, he must give his own young son, LaRose, to the family whose son he has killed, “an old form of justice,” as Erdrich calls it.
Erdrich has said in an interview that she doesn’t remember exactly when she heard about the actual event that inspired LaRose. “And of course the story was only two lines long: ‘A man killed a boy. The man gave up his son to be raised by the other family,’ ” Erdrich told Kirkus Reviews. “I never thought I’d write about it, but the story stayed with me, and when I did begin to write about it I knew exactly what was going to happen—for the first 20 pages, anyway. After that, I had quite a time figuring out what to do next.”
The novel is so sure-footed and preternaturally confident; Erdrich definitely figured it out along the way. Both families must shuffle through the emotional morass produced by the act of child-sharing (LaRose shuttles between the two homes and the wives of the two families are also half-sisters). Shy, inquisitive LaRose is “a little healer.” He is the fifth generation of LaRoses, who consults his ancestors and marshals profound bravery to right an injustice done to one of his new siblings. Erdrich chooses a few characters to focus on in addition to the members of the two families: drug-dependent Romeo who was abandoned by Landreaux years ago and a war vet named Father Travis, devout but also in love with someone he shouldn’t be in love with.
LaRose is an arresting, discerning, nimble novel. It takes the entirety of Native American time into its grasp, shifting like LaRose does between his two homes, but from the beginning of time to the novel’s more contemporary setting. Erdrich makes this vast movement without artifice or fakery. A child is fatally shot; a child is given in return. LaRose is thus about the “phosphorous of grief,” Erdrich’s lovely phrase, but it is about so much more: the fact that men so rarely get the emotions they need from one another, and the fact that Native American lives are still circumscribed by fates determined for them so long after their culture was slaughtered. But within that grinding destiny, Erdrich is saying, there is room for love and forgiveness, with your ancestors whispering to you all the while.
Clay Smith is the editor-in-chief of Kirkus Reviews, the literary director of the San Antonio Book Festival and the former literary director of the Texas Book festival.
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