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.
This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016