Lucy and Todd

Louise Erdrich–LaRose

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 25, 2016 at 6:42 am

In 1999 while trying to shoot a deer, Landreaux, a North Dakotan husband, father and home care worker, accidentally kills his neighbours’ five-year-old son. The two families immediately go to pieces. Landreaux and his wife Emmaline, both of Native American descent, retreat to a sweat lodge where they make a remarkable, if somewhat excessive, decision: they will offer their own five-year-old son LaRose to their neighbours, as a replacement.

How this altruistic step helps, and doesn’t help, plays out over the next three years. Nola, LaRose’s new compulsive-cleaning ‘mother’, already prone to ‘screaming, shouting, …rage, sorrow, misery, fury, whimper-weeping, fear, frothing, foaming, singing, praying, and then the ordinary harrowing peace’, now becomes suicidal.

But she takes to LaRose. She likes to read him Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are again and again. LaRose, a good kid, possibly saintly, puts up with it. Meanwhile his own mother, having agreed in principle to the sacrifice of her son, gradually learns to love her husband Landreaux less, resenting him for their painful predicament.

So far, so Jodi Picoult: the examination of a social worker’s dream of a conundrum, followed by the inevitable American slog towards some form of redemption. At first the situation seems hopeless and unfair. Poor little LaRose is forced to live with near-strangers, all to make up for his father’s momentary lapse. He longs to be home. When allowed a brief visit, he runs into the house, ‘clutching his stuffed creature, shouting for his mom’, and his teeny-bopper sisters ‘competition-weep’ for joy.

Rather anticlimactically, the families soon start sharing the boy, and LaRose obediently moves to and fro between the households. In both he is loved aplenty though he has to tread carefully, the grief is too fresh. But in his new family, he’s also on suicide watch – over Nola. And so, the problems of the parents eat unjustly away at the children in the traditional manner.

Among a large supporting cast, an old admirer of Emmaline’s and now the ominous local badass stands out. Drunk, druggy and disordered, Romeo lives in condemned tribal housing, ‘built unfortunately over toxic landfill that leaked green gas’ (that ‘unfortunately’ is pungent). He hangs out at a bar called Dead Custer and, like a maltreated dog, ducks whenever anyone makes any sudden movement.

A louse, but an entertaining one, Romeo attends a relative’s funeral purely to siphon off gas for his car and steal the deceased’s prescription medications. The nightly News, all about 9/11 and Iraq, feeds Romeo’s sadistic appetites: ‘Bush reminded him of all the things he hated worst about himself: weasel eyes, greed, self-pity, fake machismo. In this nation of self-haters, Bush could win.’

The story unfolds at a steady pace except for odd jerks in time and some vivid flashbacks to the purchase and rape of one of LaRose’s ancestors in 1839, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe girl. She sees her abuser, a white trader, as an ‘old stinking chimookoman’. Ancestral memory or, as Erdrich puts it, ‘intergenerational trauma’, seems to link this girl’s unhappy story to the contemporary vortex of loss, via inherited female anger: ‘the bitch gene’.

Spirits visit too, and not just during vision quests. Vengeful severed heads chase people over considerable distances. That’s fine, a touch of the supernatural, and highly relevant to Native American lore. But does Erdrich really believe in all these spirits watching over everybody, or is she just loyally positing it?

The trouble is, the after-life has become such a well-worn plot device in obnoxious mainstream efforts like The Lovely Bones, or If I Stay. Out-of-body experiences seem a dime a dozen in America. So we’re pretty blasé when Erdrich’s ghosts turn up at an Anne Tylerish picnic to eat barbecue meat, coleslaw, potato salad, and sheet cake swathed in combat camouflage icing. Imagine, coming back from the dead to chow down on American grub. Yuck-o!

Though there are at least forty droopy references to the ‘heart’ here, these may be more folkloric than sentimental. Erdrich’s generally not soppy, but she’s at her very best when she gets mad. A chronicler of the continuing destruction of Native American communities, she writes beautifully about what Indian children used to learn from their parents: ‘how to find guardian spirits…how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark.

‘How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones, how to weave reed mats and make birchbark pots…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick, dig certain roots, carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag…how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream.’

Whereas, in the government’s forced-assimilation boarding schools (to which many Indian children were sent, well into the Twentieth Century), a girl was taught ‘how to survive on bread and water…how to do menial labor… How to imagine her own mouth sewn shut. For speaking Anishinaabe. …how to endure being beaten by a board’.

These lawfully abducted children, torn from their families and cultures, faced indifference, discrimination, enslavement and loneliness on an undignified diet high in cabbage: ‘The crying up and down the rows of beds at night kept her awake, but soon she cried and farted herself to sleep with everyone else.’ How do destroyed people carry on? That’s what this book is about.

 

LE

 

This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

Jenny Diski–In Gratitude

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 20, 2016 at 6:44 am

Cancer is everywhere. It’s like a parallel universe. If you don’t believe it, take yourself off to the Cancer Centre at Edinburgh’s Western General. There’s an entire city of pain there.

And cancer diaries are now a major literary genre. In Gratitude is partly the late Jenny Diski’s examination of this. She took the time, while dying, to discuss the ins and outs of the kind of book she was writing: should it be written at all? What are the merits, the uses of this sort of book? Do such memoirs comfort the writer, or the reader?

Diski, who died of lung cancer last month, was uncertain about joining the ranks of those who go public with a terminal illness. She even felt some sympathy for Clive James, who magisterially announced his cancer with some very effective poetry, and who, thanks to medicine, now seems to be doing better.

She talks about cancer books a little disquietingly, as if writing them is a contest. She wonders which cancer-stricken authors will get the most press. She mentions Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, by the art critic Tom Lubbock (reviewed in these pages four years ago). That was a vivid book about the writer’s unhappiness at having to leave the world, all the more poignant in that the increasingly muted form of the book mirrored his day-to-day losses as his brain tumour grew. Diski doesn’t mention one of the best, but perhaps least known of the genre, My Diary by Mio Matsumoto, a surprisingly beautiful, wrenching graphic novel about cancer of the tongue.

Diski is opposed to characterizing having cancer as a ‘battle’, as was the late John Diamond, who wrote persuasively on the subject; she also despises the popularity of the word ‘journey’ in its many modern touchy-feely contexts. Good for her.

Lots of things in this world were ranged against Jenny Diski. Much of that was her own doing. One comes away from this book thinking that the real illness being discussed is not cellular but mental: she suffered from a backbreaking amount of depression all her life and never got any real help for it. A doctor she hated told her she had an addictive personality and put in her notes that she would have a terrible life and a lonely death.

She also constantly compared herself to others. This wasn’t good for her. A writer needs a bit of emotional home turf, and this she never got. She wasn’t one of those writers who feeds solely on disquiet, although she may have wanted to be.

Another thing that never helped her, as becomes plain here, was her relationship, as daughter or step-daughter or adopted daughter, with Doris Lessing. This was unhealthy, no matter how much good Lessing thought she was doing in ‘rescuing’ this classically screwed-up literary waif.

Lessing put a lot of her own trauma, and aspirations, on Diski, fitting her with a diaphragm at the age of fifteen and introducing her to a lot of men too old for her, as if deciding, after taking this troubled girl into her home, that the only thing to do was to force her to become an adult as soon as possible so she could get rid of her. This is distasteful and troubling. Did Diski survive Doris? It’s too close to call.

In Gratitude reads as though it’s not the book Jenny Diski wanted to write. On several levels of course this must be true: she didn’t want to have cancer, nor find herself writing a book about her cancer, and she must have found it immensely frustrating that this was the only book she could write. Particularly in the section on chemotherapy the reader will grasp how difficult it was to get anything written in the midst of this full-scale derangement of body and mind. And it was a close-run thing, but by all accounts Jenny Diski got to hold In Gratitude in her hand: it was sped to her straight from the printers by her agent and publisher. This book she never wanted to write.

‘You’re not the only fish; not the only one with cancer’, Diski says ruefully. She’s good on rueful. ‘The world has its timetables and rhythms. It was precisely for weeks like this that our parents were supposed to have taught us to put aside childish notions of instant gratification for the more mature deferred sort. As we all know, come cancer scans and silent lovers, it doesn’t work.’

TMcE

 

This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

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