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)


The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich

There are three stories in one in this 2005 novel, of which the first story is the most intriguing. All are interesting, however, and all are built around an old, magic Indian drum. The first story is the most interesting because it focuses on a human story, not the story of that magic drum.

It is narrated by Faye Travers, of Indian descent, who is living with, and continually adjusting, to her mother. She is an estate appraiser in New Hampshire. I found her story the most interesting because she beautifully expresses the uncertainties in her life as well as her appreciation of the pleasures of both nature and human contact. (Those pleasures being augmented by the beautiful style of the author.) Faye becomes especially interesting when she breaks her profession’s rules and steals the drum from an estate she is evaluating. She becomes even more interesting when she feels guilty about the theft, for this compounds an already existing sense of guilt, about what she thinks is a hidden love affair, as well as her responsibility for the death of a sister who fell from a tree when both were children.

Indeed, that sister’s death hangs in her memory throughout this novel. Was she truly responsible? As she struggles with her possible guilt, the reader gradually learns not only more about that fall, but more about the type of person Faye was then, and now is. We also become more aware of the presence of death in this novel, how it hangs over everyone’s actions, especially when innocent lives are lost.

Faye’s uncertainty about the love affair with a local sculptor, Kurt Krahe, brings her particularly alive. She tries to hide it from her mother. When his daughter is tragically killed, as are two other daughters in this novel, she cannot hide her compassion—undoubtedly prompted by the memory of her own sister’s young death—and this helps bring him relief from his pain. But when he will not follow up with a commitment to Faye, she backs off.

The second story begins when Faye returns the drum to its original Indian owners out west. There, Bernard Shaawano, an Ojibwe, relates the second story. It is about how the drum came to be: the result of a passionate adultery, ravenous wolves, treachery, revenge, and a ghostly return from the dead. Whereupon, an Indian mourning ritual and a ghostly presence produces the drum and gives it healing powers. Overall, this is a tale of powerful emotions from the Indian past that scald the page with its intensity, but it does not offer the tender depth that I prefer, of Faye’s uncertainty as she faces life. The novel’s tone, the sensitive style of the writing, also changes with this shift to a more direct male narrator.

The final story is about the returned drum and its impact on a impoverished Indian family of four back in Indian territory. After Ira the mother has left them alone, a blizzard begins, and the three children become marooned when their house accidentally burns down. But Ira loves her two daughters, Shawnee and Alice, and her son Apitchi; and is relieved to learn that the children were saved by following the sound of the drum to the house of Bernard, where they find haven from the storm. Bernard then brings the drum to the hospital, where the son, Apitchi, is ill of pneumonia.

The novel closes with a return to Faye, who is now on the road to resolving the issues that confronted her. Is it because she has found and returned the drum to its rightful society? She wonders. “Salvation seems a complicated process with many wobbling steps, and I am skeptical and slow to act.” We last see her in the local cemetery for children, where we met her on the opening page. She has gone there again to mourn her dead sister.

At the cemetery she is also entranced by the black ravens that seem to soar delightedly above her. Similar ravens have appeared throughout the novel, along with ferocious wolves and, at the end, a powerful bear. All are symbols of the nature she appreciates. The ravens, she also sees, as a symbol of the children buried there. “And isn’t their delight a form of the consciousness we share above, and below the ground and in between, where I stand right here?” They also seem to be a symbol of death, the idea of which has haunted this novel. Just as the wolves have seemed a symbol of the ferocious nature that haunts us, even harms us, yet a nature that is without guilt, even as it changes our lives.

This is another remarkable novel by Erdrich. It blends the humanity of man, the richness of nature, the continuity of culture, and the mystery of the occult. It is not a religious occult as much as a cultural occult. But there is also, perhaps new, an emphasis on nature. That while it can be beautiful, it can also be dangerous. And yet is blameless, even as it can harm us.

Erdrich is often known for her story-telling, which may have been inherited from her Indian culture. While the story-telling here focuses on the occult, it is an occult that operates only in earthly terms. And is external to the characters. Whereas, I am drawn to interiors, in this case the internal conscience of Faye, as she confronts love and guilt, along with the beauty of being alive.

Faye is that rarity, a middle-aged hero who is still seeking happiness, and whose emotional loneliness is easy for the reader to relate to—not least because of the sensitivities of the author. We understand the emptiness of Faye’s life, even as she herself appreciates the richness of life, of nature, around her.

The meaning of this novel lies, for me, in Faye’s life, not in the mysterious powers of the drum. I am often moved by spiritual content, but in this case the spiritual is linked to earthly lives rather than to the life of the spirit, and to human aspirations. Some might criticize that here it is about the Indian spirit, but this novel is less about the Indian culture than it is also about the human struggle for fulfillment.

Erdrich continues to be an author I admire. With each novel, she tackles the human predicament in the context of human frailty, cultural conflict, and man’s spiritual longing. (November, 2016)