Death of the first Amer­i­can dream

Fam­ily tale tells a far deeper and darker story

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Louise Er­drich Cor­sair £18.99 Re­viewed by Lucy Ell­mann

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 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 a sud­den move­ment.

A louse, but an en­ter­tain­ing one, Romeo at­tends a rel­a­tive’s funeral purely to siphon 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 ‘hearts’ here, Er­drich mostly rises above sen­ti­men­tal­ity. She’s 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 forcedas­sim­i­la­tion board­ing schools (to which many In­dian chil­dren were sent, well into the 20th 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.

IT feels so long ago and far away now, doesn’t it? The 1990s. Op­ti­mism. A fail­ing Tory Gov­ern­ment, a young(ish) Labour leader as the heir ap­par­ent, Brit­pop in the charts. Bri­tart in the gal­leries. Pop stars and pop­u­lar artists get­ting drunk to­gether in the Grou­cho club. Damien and Tracey and Sarah and Jake and Di­nos tear­ing up the art­world’s stuffy rule­book, go­ing all out to shock, mak­ing art, mak­ing head­lines.

The YBAs, Young Bri­tish Artists, are now mid­dle-aged, mem­bers of the es­tab­lish­ment (or the Royal Academy of Arts; it amounts to much the same thing). The shock of the new that they an­nounced them­selves with is nei­ther new nor par­tic­u­larly shock­ing these days (well apart per­haps from Mar­cus Harvey’s mis­un­der­stood por­trait of Moors Mur­derer Myra Hind­ley).

In­deed, when Damien Hirst had his ret­ro­spec­tive at the Tate Mod­ern in 2012 what was most no­tice­able was the sad state of his most fa­mous work, The Phys­i­cal Im­pos­si­bil­ity of Death in the Mind of Some­one Liv­ing (bet­ter known as the shark in a tank). Orig­i­nally cre­ated in 1991, the shark in ques­tion was look­ing rad­dled and frankly piti­ful. As a sym­bol of the past tense­ness of Bri­tart it’s hard to re­sist. We have moved on.

Which prob­a­bly means it’s a good time for some­one to look back and sum it all up from a dis­tance. That’s what art his­to­rian and jour­nal­ist El­iz­a­beth Fuller­ton at­tempts to do in Ar­trage!, an ac­count that takes us from the Freeze ex­hi­bi­tion in 1988 with which the YBAs an­nounced their ar­rival to the blaze at the Mo­mart stor­age com­pany in 2004 that saw the de­struc­tion of many iconic Bri­tArt works in­clud­ing Tracey Emin’s tent and the Chap­man Broth­ers’ model Hell (the one with Nazi toy sol­diers and toy death camps).

The book fills a need. There has been sur­pris­ingly lit­tle writ­ten on the YBAs; there was Matthew Collings’ con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous Blimey!, Gre­gor Muir’s in­sider ac­count Lucky Kunst and the late Gor­don Burn’s art jour­nal­ism col­lected in Sex & Violence, Death & Si­lence.

But those are all, for var­i­ous rea­sons, par­tial ac­counts. Fuller­ton has the chance to stand back and look

Louise Er­drich’s novel about a young boy tells the story of the Na­tive Amer­i­can na­tion

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