At the back of her new novel, “LaRose,” Louise Erdrich thanks her mother for mentioning “an Ojibwe family who allowed parents enduring the loss of a child to adopt their child — a contemporary act echoing an old form of justice.” The echo resounds through “LaRose,” which begins with Landreaux Iron accidentally shooting a close friend’s 5-year-old son, Dusty, then giving his own 5-year-old boy, LaRose, to the bereaved parents.
The novel, like all of Erdrich’s work — from her 1984 debut, “Love Medicine,” to “The Round House,” winner of the 2012 National Book Award — is full of echoes: Ojibwe creation myths retold, traditions revisited, family history passed on. The name LaRose is itself an echo, harking back to a distant female ancestor, whose own story of escaping from a vicious fur trader is a sort of genealogy of family lore — European and Indian culture intertwine in the lives of LaRose’s descendants, and the luminous visions of the original LaRose recur in her namesakes.
A wise friend reminds the grief-stricken Landreaux of what the elders said about the LaRoses: “Evil tried to catch them all. They fought demons, outwitted them, flew. … LaRose can do these things too.”
What if the elders are just a bunch of regular old people? Landreaux wonders, and there’s the challenge “LaRose” takes up: reconciling the promise of a powerful spirit world with the everyday reality of “the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history.”
Through the three years the book covers, the boy LaRose does seem to quietly possess strange powers, and to exert a subtle healing influence as he shuttles between the two devastated families, weaving together the loosely but inextricably connected characters, real and mythic, past and present, who people his world — which reaches far beyond his own small rural North Dakota reservation town.
Erdrich’s light touch moving among them allows for a surprising depth of feeling wherever we look — LaRose’s mother, Emmaline, loved long and deeply by Landreaux, illicitly by Father Travis (“the old Vin Diesel priest”) and abjectly by the damaged, drug-pilfering Romeo, who plays the role of a debased trickster in the novel, stirring up trouble out of a twisted sense of injustice; Emmaline’s snappy, charming daughters Snow and Josette, adopted son Hollis (Romeo’s) and half-sister Nola, Dusty’s bereft mother.
All of these people’s doings merit Erdrich’s fine-tuned, sympathetic attention — from the awful boarding school experience that links Romeo and Landreaux, to the affairs of the ribald ladies at the Elders Lodge, to the incremental adjustments of long-term marriages, to a riotous high school volleyball game.
But it is Maggie, Dusty’s teenage sister, who is the book’s center of emotional gravity, as she navigates her family’s loss, painful adolescence and first love. “When she was six years old, her teachers started calling Maggie ‘a piece of work.’ But after her brother died, her work came together” — specifically, trying to keep her suicidally sorrowful mother alive.
When, a few years ago, researchers at the New School in New York City conducted a study showing that reading literary fiction increases empathy, “The Round House” was one of the books they gave their subjects. It was hardly a startling pick, or outcome, because empathy is the guiding force in Erdrich’s writing — and so it is in this sad, wise, funny novel, in which the author takes the native storytelling tradition that informs her work and remakes it for the modern world, stitching its tattered remnants into a vibrant living fabric.
Ellen Akins is a writer, book critic and writing teacher in Wisconsin.