The Mercury News
Louise Erdrich completes a trilogy with publication of “LaRose.”
Louise Erdrich’s new novel completes an unplanned trilogy
Louise Erdrich’s 15th novel, “LaRose,” entwines such weighty themes as war, family, adoption, death, grief, the Indian Child Welfare Act, reservation boarding schools, Indian culture and myth, and justice.
It’s also a page-turner and in parts, quite funny.
“Oh, good,” Erdrich said, sounding relieved. “I was looking over my notebook a while back, and I had this giant note in the middle of my pages: ‘PROBLEM. BIG PROBLEM. THERE IS NO HUMOR WHATSOEVER IN THIS MANUSCRIPT.’
“It’s the hardest thing, writing humor into a book. But it’s also essential. I just don’t feel like I’ve got a book unless there’s something funny in it.”
“LaRose,” not at its heart a funny book, is a very human book. It opens with tragedy, when Landreaux Iron accidentally kills Dusty, the 5-year-old son of his best friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich. Tragedy leads to further heartbreak when Landreaux and his wife give their own young son, LaRose, to Peter and his wife to raise.
That act, Erdrich said, comes from Indian tradition. “You read through traditional accounts, someone loses a child, whether anybody else is responsible or not, and someone else decides, ‘Well, you raise my child.’ Or someone is unable to bear a child, and someone else decides, ‘Well, here, you help me raise my child. We’ll do this together.’ ”
This fluidity of family is a powerful theme in “LaRose,” with the Iron and Ravich families sharing not just the boy LaRose but also Ravich’s daughter, Maggie, and the Irons raising not just their own children but also the son of another friend.
“This has always been a part of Native life, this ability to hand over a child to a sister, or to someone else, to raise for a while if you’re having trouble,” Erdrich said. “In my own family, my grandmother routinely adopted children for a period of time. They’d stay with her or be raised by her or go back to their own families after a time. And my mother, too — my parents also cared for other kids. That’s always been the way I saw things.” This fluidity, she said, was misunderstood by Western social workers, who also took advantage of it, adopting Indian children out of the tribe, out of the community. Since the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which makes it more difficult to remove children from their families, “the family system has been-slowly building back up,” Erdrich said. “So this is a book that has a sense in it of increased responsibility, increased resilience and strength.”
“LaRose” is the third volume of Erdrich’s justice trilogy, following “The Plague of Doves” (a Pulitzer finalist), which explored revenge, and “The Round House” (winner of a National Book Award), which dealt with the theme of justice denied. She didn’t initially see the three books as connected.
“I started thinking about each one long ago, but I didn’t find them related internally until I was about halfway through ‘The Round House,’” she said. “But one question led to another, and then I realized, ah, you know, I’m really writing something thematically linked.”
Justice, she said, “is the foundation of a trusting society. It’s the foundation of going forward and making a life. Justice is an enormous issue for this country.”
Although the story of “LaRose” springs from darkness, this book feels lighter than some of her novels.
“What I think is warming about the book, or engaging about the book, are the relationships between people,” Erdrich said, “and the fact that nobody ever really lets anybody else go, not really. I see that so often in families — the mending that occurs almost in a subterranean way and brings people back together even after something you think would sunder them forever.” The children in the book are a bright spot, providing much of the humor — such as when LaRose and Maggie steal a carton of Blue Bunny ice cream and eat the whole thing, burying the evidence in the barn (including the spoons).
“The writing came alive for me whenever I got to them,” Erdrich said. “I loved writing them, and I loved writing their relationship with Maggie. I think this is something about young women that isn’t emphasized as often as the mean girl-type of tearing down. But I also see this loyalty among young women and a kind of friendship that is so fierce and protective.”
Erdrich, 61, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, and grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her mother and father taught at a boarding school. She studied at Dartmouth College, a place she initially found lonely and a little overwhelming. In a 2010 interview with the Paris Review, Erdrich said, “At Dartmouth, I was awkward and suspicious. … I don’t have a thick skin, and I especially didn’t then. I obsessed over everything people said, ran it over forever in my mind.”
She is still reserved, though supremely poised; she speaks carefully, pausing between thoughts. When talking about her daughters and sisters, she lightens, smiling broadly, but grows serious discussing her work.
Family is at the heart of the novel, and family is wrapped about the physical book, as well — dedicated to one daughter, Persia, and designed by another, Aza. The author photograph is by Paul Emmel, Erdrich’s stepson. The script across the book jacket is Erdrich’s grandfather’s handwriting.
Erdrich writes her books by hand in unlined artist notebooks. “Sometimes, I draw into the writing, or make a design,” she said. “It’s a visual and tactile way of working. I need that.”
Every 20 pages or so, “when I get a page buildup,” she enters her words into a computer. “Then I get a printout — I don’t read anything on a screen. I find it doesn’t give me as much. I need the feeling of paper, the warmth of print on paper.” She’s a saver, keeping notebooks, ideas, “scraps of writing” she leafs through sometimes in search of inspiration.
“When I’m looking where my next book comes from, I sift through the notebooks. Put down ideas. Go back to them, and something clicks, something hooks me in.” Some of the notes are useful, she said, and then, laughing, added, “And some of them are, ‘THERE’S NO SENSE OF HUMOR WHATSOEVER. WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? THIS BOOK SUCKS.’ ”
Readers, of course, are almost certain to disagree.