When I read a book, I almost always try to work out some kind of unified theory of the story I’m reading. I try to figure out what the book has to say, how it says it, and what the point of it all is. Every now and then, however, I come across a book that resists this. LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, is just such a book. I read most of the book trying to puzzle out the book’s message. When it didn’t come to me, I tried to force things and ended up with a headache because nothing I thought of seemed to fit. I still have no idea how the pieces of this book are supposed to fit together.
LaRose begins with the kind of tragedy that destroys people. Landreaux Iron has just accidentally killed his neighbor and friend’s son in a hunting accident. To make restitution, Landreaux and his wife send their charmed youngest son, LaRose, to live with them. Of course, it takes time more than anything else for the dead boy’s family, the Raviches, to come to terms with their loss and for Landreaux to sort of make piece with the accident. In the middle, poor LaRose is forced to take on more emotional burdens than anyone that young should ever have to deal with. Everyone, even LaRose, believes that he can cope because everyone with that name (he’s the fifth) has possessed a strong understanding of the spirit world and what the right thing to do is.
As the Ravich and Iron families struggle their way back to normalcy, we see scenes of the original LaRose’s life. The first LaRose was traded to a White man for alcohol in 1839, who she later helped poison, spent time in a boarding school to “civilize” her, before dying of tuberculosis. We also meet Romeo Puyat, a self-described bottom feeder who steals prescription drugs, siphons gas, eats scavenged food, and constantly searches for information with which to blackmail people. Meanwhile, Father Travis, a character who appeared in The Round House, struggles with the futility of his mission on the reservation; a descendant of the original LaRose tries to reclaim her remains from a museum; and Maggie Ravich struggles to transform herself from a scowling badass into a more mature, kind badass.
All of the different threads never really came together for me, even though the connections between them are clear. They just never gelled. I could kind of see why we had to learn about Romeo and Father Travis. The parts about the original LaRose, which I loved, were dropped fairly early on. I’m still not sure what they were doing there. If someone forced me to say what I thought this book was about, I would probably say something about forced assimilation, the fragility of facades, and/or enduring the unendurable. Several characters in this novel are transplanted into foreign environments, like the inhumane boarding schools or the Ravich home, where they have to rapidly adapt in order to emotionally survive. There are also characters who feel that the face they present to the world, like a nonjudgmental priestly presence or characters holding on to sanity by their fingernails. Both of these characters groups are enduring terrible stress, but the rushed ending felt like all of the plot threads were tied together and cut off before the full pattern of the book appeared.
It’s not a bad thing when a book has a lot going on. After all, Italo Calvino defines a classic as “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” But all those moving parts have to work together, to make sense in close proximity to each other, or the whole thing just fails. LaRose doesn’t achieve that sense of unity. I feel frustrated by the novel more than anything else. Erdrich is capable of such beautiful, thoughtful writing that I was disappointed by this book.