By Sara Di Blasi
Louise Erdrich is a favorite American author and household name. She has written novels, books of poetry and children’s books. Although she started her career as a poet, she is most well known for her novels—many of which have won awards. These include the National Book Award for Fiction for her novel The Round House, as well as the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Plague of Doves, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Louise has been one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People but she’s just as intriguing. She has taught poetry at prisons, she has co-written romantic fiction under the pen name Milou North, she’s changed her name, she has been everything from a beet-weeder to a lifeguard. Now, Louise Erdrich is writing as feverishly as ever all while managing her bookstore Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.
Not new to this scene, Louise has been a winner of the NBCC Fiction Award in the past for her debut novel Love Medicine. It is exciting to see her nominated again for the novel LaRose. The novel belongs to a trilogy including The Plague of Doves and The Round House. Louise explains in an interview with The Rumpus that there is no order to the trilogy; instead the titles are linked thematically.
In LaRose, Erdrich examines the toll pain can take on a body, on a family and on a community. The story follows the aftermath of a hunting accident where an Ojibwe man, named Landreaux, fatally shoots a little boy, and then decides to give up his own son to the mourning family. The novel has strong story telling instincts and is powerfully driven by Erdrich’s rich descriptions and poignant details. Larose is a story about inheritance: inherited history, habits, addiction, and depression, but also the inherited pain that proves the body remembers. This singular event, Dusty’s death, tears at the fragility within each character and explores the idea that “Love won’t be tampered with, love won’t go away. Push it to one side and it creeps to the other” (Louise Erdrich).
In the acknowledgments for LaRose, Louise mentions that her mother had told her a story of an Ojibwe family that gave their child to another family. The decision was born from tradition as a way to reestablish a form balance. This is not the only tie the novel has to Louise’s family and own reality. Her mother is of Ojibwe descent. LaRose was an actual name from an ancestor of Louise’s family. Even the cover of the novel speaks volumes about the role truth plays in the story. Louise states, “My daughter Aza, who is also a visual artist, did the cover for the book. She digitized my Indian-boarding-school-taught grandfather’s handwriting, and she made the cover” (The Rumpus).
The novel is not named after the little boy who dies but instead takes on the name of the boy who is given to the grieving family. Two families come together, and by sharing a son they soon realize they are sharing much, much more. The idea of mortality in the novel is always bumping up against the infinite. This is represented in the ongoing quality in the name LaRose. Inherited throughout generations of women, the name came to hold a power and house an intelligent spirit often capable of crossing worlds: from the living to the dead.
Now, the boy LaRose carries the name and all the weight it has accumulated. In fact, the novel shifts in and out of moments that feel supernatural—with the dead dropping by to visit as if they were simply neighbors from down the street. Yet these shifts don’t interrupt the believability or immersive nature of the novel. In an interview with The Paris Review, Louise states, “I’m not aware of the supernatural in the same way, so I can’t tell when it starts to approach. Maybe it goes back to childhood, still spoiled by the Old Testament. Maybe it’s Catholic after all, this conviction that there are miracles.”
In the same interview, Louise mentions she has changed her name from Karen to Louise. In a novel such as LaRose where names affect character to such a great extent, it comes as no surprise that Louise pays attention to and shows appreciation for the importance in a name. “I was happier when I was called Louise. My grandfather was named Louis. I thought it had a good, lucky sort of writerliness to it. There were lots of Louises who were artists and writers: Louise Bogan, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Glück” (The Paris Review).
Story telling is a crucial component within LaRose. Not only the stories that are told by the elders and carried on from generations to help a culture survive, but the stories individuals tell themselves—ways to cope with reality, make it more personal instead of a random string of events. Opening a novel with the death of a child on the second page is a hard thing to pull off, yet Louise keeps the accident central to the novel by having the characters retell and reshape the very events that took place during that hunting excursion. Landreaux’s own sobriety is called into question. The murkiness of truth is explored. More importantly, the novel looks at empathy and investigates each character’s reaction to the event as well as the pain in not being able to alleviate Dusty’s family’s grief.
There are moments in the book where heartache is almost treated like a competition between the characters. Nola, Dusty’s mother, tries to outcry her daughter Maggie from time to time over the death of her son. She will yell at her husband Peter for not accessibly mourning the boy. It is in these moments that it becomes clear how particular each character is in the way they showcase and deal with their pain. It must have been challenging to show the diversity of that one specific emotion, yet Louise pulls it off effortlessly.
In a novel that feels perfect, it is comforting to find the line: “Don’t forget to make a mistake…you know, to let the spirit out.” This is a forgiving and freeing way to look at the world. LaRose is a title that exercises our empathy muscle. The novel exists at precisely the right time and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Sara Di Blasi is an MFA candidate at The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on a collection of poems.