Death of the first American dream
Family tale tells a far deeper and darker story
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