LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

This is a beautifully written novel from 2016, the language even more beautiful than I can remember from other Erdrich novels. But it is also not an easy novel to follow. Not because of the magic realism that reflects the Indian heritage— with bodies existing outside themselves, or with the dead showing up in the real world. No, it is because the author again shifts her perspective too much. She delays here in making connections that the reader needs, that at least this reader does. This problem arises for me primarily when new characters appear on the scene, and what is not clear is their relationship to the characters I am already familiar with. Or why they belong in this novel at all.

This is the story of two families, the Iron family and the Ravich family. And the novel begins beautifully and dramatically when Landreaux Iron, out hunting, aims at a deer but tragically kills five year old Dusty Ravich, the only son of Pete and Nola Ravich and the best friend of his own son, LaRose. Following Indian tradition, Landeaux and his wife Emmaline eventually offer to share their son LaRose, Rusty’s best friend, with the Ravich family, offering him as a replacement for Dusty. This decision took my breath away, and opened up so many possibilities for this novel.

And to compound this heartbreaking situation, these two families are very close. For Landreaux and Pete are also best friends, and all the children of these two families often play together. Moreover, Landreaux’s wife Emmaline is a half sister of Dusty’s mother, and, while she loves her own son, she realizes Nola is heartbroken at the loss of her son.

What gives this novel much of it reality is the continuing interaction among the children of both families. Particularly by LaRose. He has been named for a long string of LaRoses in his family, most of whom were women. They were also healers, acting to preserve Indian traditions, and this is a role the boy now plays. What is also intriguing is that he becomes comfortable living with both the Iron and the Ravich families. And that both families accept this. For a while. He especially gets along with Maggie Ravich, who grows into a prominent character. She becomes particularly effective when Emmaline insists that LaRose return to the Iron family, and Maggie’s mother Nola becomes despondent at his loss. Whereupon Maggie, aided by LaRose, works to free her mother from thoughts of suicide.

But then we return to the men and to a major plot point. A rather dramatic one, but one which explains the presence of a mysterious Romeo Puyat, who has long been resentful of Landreaux for reasons unknown. In fact, the reason for even his presence in this novel early on has not been clear. But now we learn that when both boys were five or so, they met at an Indian boarding school, and that later Landreaux persuaded Romeo to escape with him. But when they were in hiding, Landreaux accidentally injured his pal, and the pain from the injury turned Romeo into a drug addict and later, as he searched for drugs, into an investigator of the town’s secrets.

Romeo has long resented his injury and the accompanying addiction that ruined his marriage, and has long plotted revenge. He now convinces Pete Ravich that Landreaux was drunk when he killed Pete’s son, and could even have saved the boy if he had not run away. He tells this story convinced that it will prompt Pete to kill Landreaux in revenge. And this drama fills much of the novel’s finale, tying together the two families even more. But it also introduces a major change in the atmosphere of the novel.

Indeed, Erdrich milks this plotting for its suspense. If only the outcome weren’t so anti-climactic, as if she realized that violence would not be in keeping with this quiet story of two Indian families. Evidence for this is that she closes the novel with a graduation party for Romeo’s son Hollis, who has been living with the Irons, another cause of his father’s resentment. This recreates the family atmosphere before the death of Rusty, the two families once again acting in harmony and also forgiving each other. The party concludes with a blend of modern American culture and Indian culture, but overall this final chapter barely fits the events of this novel.

According to Mary Gordon in The New York Times Book Review, Erdrich is asking in this novel whether a good man “can do the worst thing possible and still be loved.” And this party, Gordon says, expresses the forgiveness that the two families feel. That it wipes out the allure of revenge, with even a proud Romeo attending this party honoring his son.

The richness of this novel stems from the Indian culture of these two families. The gift of LaRose to the Raviches is, of course, the strongest evidence of that culture. As is their cooperation and shared perspective. But it is also present in the magic moments when the dead are present, when living creatures rise overhead and look down on their own bodies, and in the small traditions both families observe. Of course, this is a trademark of Erdrich novels, in which her characters work to preserve their Indian heritage in modern day America.

One development, however, seems out of place. Erdrich, a Catholic, introduces here a priest, Father Travis. He is young, serious, and somewhat naïve, but he is sought out by the Indian families for advice. In this role, he is an effective character. However, the author has him fall in love with Emmaline, even having a tryst with her, and I am not sure why this element is introduced. To show he is human? For it has no connection with the novel’s other events. Nor are we given Emmaline’s own perspective. Why does she get involved with the priest? And, at the end, Father Travis is simply replaced by a less consequential priest. Overall, Travis plays a legitimate role as an adviser to these families, but why Erdrich has him fall in love is unclear.

Nevertheless, Erdrich novels continue to interest me. And not least because she is a Catholic. And while religious concerns are not always paramount in her works, I do often share the perspective with which she delineates her characters and their lives. In this case, what interests me is her concern for the conflict between revenge and forgiveness. (May, 2018)

 

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The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

This tender novel works on two levels. It is the story of a Catholic family, of mother Annie and daughter Sally, as they each seek happiness after the loss of husband and father. It is also the story of an order of Catholic nuns, featuring Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne as they take over from the elderly Sister St. Saviour. And within both stories is an awareness of death, along with a striving for happiness in one’s life.

The emotions that carry this novel belong to the family story, as wife and daughter seek to overcome the disgrace of a suicide. The richness that fills this novel comes from the spiritual life of the nuns, and the sacrifices they make to care for others. These literary qualities join when both the family and the nuns confront death as the inevitable human destiny.

And yet the telling of these two stories does lack cohesion. The action does not flow from one chapter into the next. Instead, each chapter isolates a separate stage in the family story. After a harrowing opening scene of suicide, the narrative settles on the funeral arrangements, with the issue of whether a suicide can be buried in hallowed ground and the reaction of these nuns who are more open-minded then doctrinaire.

Then follow separate chapters that introduce a widow’s love affair, life in the nuns’ laundry room, the pain of a sick and dying woman, then a disillusioning train ride, followed by the funeral of a figure from the past, then a return to the sick invalid. Each chapter is beautifully written, but each is self-contained and could stand on its own as a short story. (One does appear in The New Yorker.) The continuity stems from daughter Sally’s thinking: whether or not she should join these sisters whose dedication to the unfortunate she has been exposed to.

Contributing also to the lack of cohesion are interruptions in the narrative, which suggest we are being told this family story by a character who does not exist in the novel. Every so often, that is, this narrator jumps into the third person narrative, and refers to “my mother, or “my father.” And we realize that this narrator is a child of the daughter Sally. A child who, as I said, never appears. Why is this person present? What is his or her purpose? It is conceivable that Sally, as mother, may have told this figure much of her own thinking, but certainly not that of the nuns or the other characters.

The ending also may be problematic for some. It introduces a death, a death which may be natural, but there is a suggestion that it has been triggered by one of the characters. The author does not say this, but she does leave us with the strong possibility. And it is also in keeping with the human motivations of these characters. The closest the author comes to stating this is when one character talks of heaven. “Out of love, I lost it. Which sounds funny, doesn’t it. You’d think you could only lose heaven out of hate.” And later: “But you’ll pray for me, won’t you…You’ll pray for this lost soul.”

It is the presence of life’s spiritual frame of reference that provides the strength of this novel. The actions of all these characters, even of the nuns, are human actions, but there are consequences to those actions, consequences that originate in the religious convictions that govern the Irish society to which these characters belong. The primary conviction is that the meaning of human life is not limited to the physical world, but is found, more significantly, in the spiritual world. And the conflict between these two worlds is introduced from the start of the novel, when a nun and a bishop debate whether a suicide can be buried in consecrated ground. It is also reflected in the novel’s title, for the ninth hour becomes the time for both the nun’s mid-afternoon prayers and the love affair of a lonely woman.

But what lends this novel its substance is that all its nuns realize that their daily lives are circumscribed by a physical, humanistic world. And that they must adjust their spiritual decisions accordingly. Which means that they lean toward practical considerations. And lean quite far, if one woman’s confession is to be believed.

The order these nuns belong to is The Little Sisters off the Sick Poor. So the richness of the novel also stems from the lives of the poor victims that these nuns encounter. Which highlights both the physical needs the nuns fulfill and the spiritual motives that inspire them. That is, they serve both worlds. And yet there is also that tension between these worlds, illustrated when Sally rejects a spiritual vocation after being confronted by the world of reality on her train ride. As well as, later, when both she and a nun conclude that enabling love, enabling a physical affair, is justified, even though it would deny them their spiritual destiny.

It is this coexistence between the physical world and the spiritual world that characterizes much of McDermott’s work. But with this probing of the nun’s world, perhaps an inevitable extension of the Irish culture, she has raised her explorations to a new level. She has kept the family environment, with its Irish culture, and here the Irish shame of suicide, but also made a family’s spiritual considerations more tangible by introducing the nun’s worldly perspective.

If only she had offered smoother transitions between the two worlds. Had told the story through a decade or two of one generation (Sally’s), instead of through two generations, with the suggestion of a third. Had made her witness of her mother’s love affair even more central to the conflict between the two worlds. (Or would that have veered too much toward melodrama?) Because I see a richness in the many considerations that Sally was faced with, especially the wall of innocence both the nuns and her mother had built around this young girl.

Overall, this does not reach the heights of McDermott’s better novels. But I do give her credit for exploring more deeply its spiritual dimension, not always an easy assignment. (March, 2018)

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

This 2010 work is a remarkable book. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, a track star whom I do recall from my youth, although not as a star, much less the first potential four-minute miler. But the perseverance he developed from track does lead to his survival during his wartime experiences, and those experiences do justify both his life and this tremendous book.

Hillenbrand begins by describing Zamperini as a precocious brat in his youth, always stealing, brawling, and deceiving both adults and friends. But this toughness and independence would, as Hillenbrand describes, help him survive a crash landing at sea, a month and a half in a foundering pontoon lifeboat, and two and a half years of horrendous treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war.

How Zamperini survived is brilliantly told, the longest section being given to his story as a POW in Japan—and how he and his friends survived the cruelty of their captors, especially a brutal guard they called the Bird, as well as the horrendous physical conditions at the camps. The dominance of this section is no doubt due not only to the length of this experience but to the accompanying stories of the many military men who were with him at the camps and whom the author tracked down. Whereas only two men survived the ditching in the Pacific, and that physical trial lasted 47 days.

Equally heart-rending are the repercussions Zamperini endured after the war, the drinking, the violent temper, and the abusiveness that led his wife to threaten divorce. This was certainly PTSD before it was known as that, but it is known today and makes this book all the more powerful. What is lacking, however, is an effective portrayal of the redemption referred to in the volume’s subtitle. Yes, it may have originated with sermons by Billy Graham, but the author does not describe how our hero converted to being a born-again Christian, nor his subsequent activity as a Christian evangelist.

I think this element is missing because this conversion from hatred to forgiveness and from a closed mind to being open about his experiences, happened inside his mind, even inside his soul, and that perspective is something either the author or Zamperini was not interested in discussing.

Indeed, when we get inside Zamperini in this work, it concerns his thinking about the situation at hand, whether running a four-minute mile, surviving a crash, or enduring the trials of the camp. But there is nothing about the faith he was raised in, or the life philosophy that these horrible events might have inspired. Everything we witness, his trials and his degradation, as well as those of others, are explored in their own terms. That is, on the surface level of our existence. Or was Zamperini perhaps reluctant to discuss leaving his Catholic upbringing for the Christian evangelists?

That is, his final redemption appears to exist much further inside this person that Hillenbrand wishes to portray. Indeed, she leaves him looking deep into a bible, and then a year later returning to Japan to forgive his prison guard tormentors. Both are the actions of a Christian. But what happened inside Zamperini in those intervening 12 months to prompt this change and his return to Japan? This, I believe, is the true final chapter in this story of Louis Zamperini. And we never know it. Was Zamperini incapable of explaining his internal life? Or had Hillenbrand no interest in it? Instead, she condenses the remaining years of his life, as he reaches ninety, as well as the remaining years of a few of his POW companions. Which left me unsatisfied.

For this is the story of a man who was unbroken during his wartime experiences, then was broken by the after effects when he returned home, and finally pulled himself together and became a contributing member of society. But we do not experience that final development. In the acknowledgments, Hillenbrand mentions her poor health, and one wonders if that might have forced her to cut off the Zamperini story earlier than she might otherwise have done. I have also read elsewhere that she suffers from a serious illness.

During the weeks on a fragile craft that he shared with two others, during that frightening time in the middle of the Pacific, with its brilliant description of circling sharks and an angry sea, Zamperini promised God that if he survived he “would serve you forever.” And in his frightening postwar decline, a Billy Graham sermon prompts him to recalls this. But it comes off as a sidelight in Hillenbrand’s telling, whereas I believe it must have been central to Zamperini’s recognition of his human and spiritual failings at that point. And it is where the author has shortchanged the reader.

I am afraid I am harping on one chapter in an otherwise brilliant tale, a tale of courage and perseverance, of suffering and the denial of despair, of stubbornness and clever subterfuge. But the reference to survival and resilience in the subtitle is followed by the word, redemption. And unlike survival and resilience, that word is not explored or dramatized. Thus, for me, there is no true climax to this story. Zamperini descends into the hell of postwar violence and drunkenness, and then is mysteriously resurrected.

This version may be valid in describing the life of Christ, but this is the life of a human being struggling on his own. There is no God in his life, at least in this telling of his life. And, needless to say, I think there should be, at least be a spiritual element. Zamperini’s attendance at Billy Graham rallies is not enough. We need to see his internal reactions to Graham’s message.

What was remarkable about this book is that each time I returned to it, I immediately remembered both the entire Zamperini story to date and where I had left off. This rarely happens to me, and I attribute it to Hillenbrand’s sterling craft. She is a magnificent story-teller. At least, when it comes to surface events. Here, these are the crash, the loneliness in an angry sea, and the horror and inhumanity of the wartime Japanese prison camps. But the word “unbroken” also refers to our hero’s interior life. And here, the interior life is confined to his reactions to the brutality he faced. Whereas, I would claim it also refers to his spiritual resources that extend beyond those brutal experiences and should well include his interpretation of life’s meaning, particularly of his own life’s meaning. (April, 2016)