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It is a novel that is said to be about justice. For me it was about age-old injustice that is still haunting a population.

LaRose - Louise Erdrich

LaRose, Louise Erdrich, author and narrator
Because there are so many threads to this story, and so many important characters, even some that seem to be minor characters who have a major impact, it is best to portray them, and then briefly describe the book. It is a very entertaining and touching read filled with spiritual and mythical moments. The Native American folklore enters the world of fantasy and magic, but it leaves one wondering, at times, if perhaps the fantasy was actually their reality and was the norm before the planned annihilation of the Native American Indian population was executed. White men who had the power wanted to wipe them out and take their territory. As a result, they destroyed the Native American culture. Although the heightened awareness experienced by the Ojibwe tribe’s natives during certain ceremonies was often enhanced with the use of natural substances, their experiences were handed down in an oral tradition and events were presented as if they had truly occurred and were witnessed by others. The legends generally had a moral which was intended to guide their behavior and/or warn them of danger.

The LaRose history in the story begins in 1839 with Mink who came from an Ojibwe family of powerful healers. She is screeching when we meet her. She is the mother of an unkempt young girl who doesn’t speak and lies quietly wrapped in a blanket with her outside a trading post.  She is the child who later hints that her name is flower, but her name is actually LaRose. As silent as the girl is, her mother is loud. She screams as she begs for trader’s milk and attempts to sell the child to Mackinnon, the man who runs the trading post. Trader’s milk appears to be an alcoholic concoction to which she is apparently addicted. Wolfred Roberts, a clerk, overhears Mink’s screams and propositions. He tries to protect the girl. He believes that Mackinnon will not harm her, but he soon realizes that he was wrong. With the help of what seems to be magic and the spirit world, the two escape together although they are chased by the rolling head of their victim. She was eleven and he was seventeen. Years pass and she gives birth to the next generation of LaRose and the line of powerful healers continues until the fifth generation with the birth of a son called LaRose. He is the last child born to Emmaline Peace and Landreaux Iron. They had not intended to name their child LaRose, but he just seemed to own the name when he was born.

We meet LaRose Iron when he is five years old. He has a playmate of the same age named Dusty Ravich. They are also cousins. Dusty’s parents are Nola and Peter. Nola is Emmaline’s half sister. They are both related to the Peace side of the family. Nola’s daughter is named Maggie for her great aunt Maggie Peace. LaRose is named for his grandmother, LaRose Peace. The two half-sisters do not get along, but the brother-in-laws are friends. Because of a tragic event which takes the life of Dusty, LaRose becomes the shared child of both families. LaRose, is an “old, young boy”. He is wiser than his years and more mature than even some adults. His counseling is patient and wise. He seems to be a very special child who is liked by all.

In 1967, Landreaux, only about 8 years old, was abandoned by his parents. He wound up in a boarding school on the Indian Reservation where he met Romeo. Romeo was bullied there, and Landreaux was his only friend. Although Romeo was a good student and was happy at school, Landreaux convinced him to run away with him. Tragedy followed them when Romeo was hurt by Landreaux in a freak accident which left him with lifetime injuries and pain. Both boys were caught and returned to the school. When Romeo returned after semi-recovering from his injuries, Landreaux ignored him. Romeo was bereft and angry.

Both Landreaux and Romeo loved their teacher, Mrs. Peace, who happened to also be Emmaline’s mother. They both had crushes on her and soon both loved Emmaline. She chose Landreaux, to Romeo’s dismay, and he resented Landreaux still further and carried a torch for Emmaline into the future. Emmaline and Landreaux were wild for awhile, but with the birth of their children, they gave up substance abuse. When, as an adult, Romeo was unable to care for his own son, Hollis, Emmaline and Landreaux raised him as their own alongside their four other children, Josette, Coochy (Willard), Snow and LaRose. Although it was an act of kindness for which Romeo should have been ever grateful, he continued to harbor resentment toward Landreaux for what he perceived were his past transgressions.

In 1999, Landreaux went out to hunt for a buck he had been watching. He aimed and shot, but instead of the buck, his aim, which was normally excellent, failed him, and a mortally wounded child fell from a tree, hit by shrapnel from the bullet. The child was Dusty Ravich. Emmaline and Landreaux were horrified. Landreaux had killed his nephew! Nola and Peter Ravich were inconsolable. Emmaline and Landreaux went into their sweat lodge to seek counsel, and their combined visions told them that they should give their own son, LaRose, to Nola and Peter to make up for their loss which Landreaux caused. It was the old tribal custom. They brought LaRose to them, and although they only meant for it to be a temporary arrangement to help Nola recover,  Nola became very attached to LaRose and refused to return him. LaRose, although very young, realized over the next few years that he and Maggie, his cousin, were responsible for saving Nola from herself, for protecting her mental and fragile emotional health, for preventing her from harming herself. At first, Maggie was very cruel to LaRose and to her mother, Nola, who was very unkind to her, as well. Maggie suffered because of neglect and a lack of love. It was LaRose’s easygoing attitude, patience, and kindness that taught her the value of friendship, devotion, loyalty, love and respect, and she softened under his guidance as their relationship blossomed and their friendship grew. Even though he was very young, LaRose was able to show her a kind of love and loyalty she had never experienced before.

Father Travis Wozniak was the man they all turned to for counseling. He was a survivor of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, and that was what inspired him to become a priest. He bore emotional and physical scars from that time. He also fell in love with Emmaline. Shortly after he realized this, he was replaced by Father Dick Boner, a rather unusual name for a priest, especially under the circumstances, but perhaps apropos.

The narrative moves steadily along and all of the varied themes, abandonment, vengeance, loss, atonement, retribution, and justice, to name a few, are married in the end, but for me, the conclusion was not as satisfying as I had hoped. Although the several threads of the story were knitted together, the resolution of the many underlying issues in the story seemed to work out too neatly and felt somewhat contrived, making the novel seem more like a fairy tale. There was also a very distinct political point of view expressed by Father Travis who witnessed military violence, Romeo who loved John McCain but feared George Bush, and Hollis who was joining the National Guard to give back to his country, never thinking that he would have to serve outside the country in a war. He envisioned saving people at home. However, unknown to him, the Iraq war was looming in the future, and although the Guard had not been used in this way before, it would soon be used to send soldiers to fight outside the United States and into the Middle East.

Using Native American folklore and legends woven into the tale, the author revealed the abuse Indian tribes have historically suffered. Powerless against the more powerful White man who had plans to annihilate them, they were largely wiped out and homeless. It gave voice to the injustice and problems that Native American Indians have had to face ever since, regardless of their tribal background. They have been maligned and neglected. It also demonstrated the power of all choices, right and wrong, innocent or guilty, from all quarters, on the lives of those making them and those that are the victims of those decisions. This author brings all to our attention by merging the past with the present to illuminate the pain and suffering, the spirituality and superstition, the neglect and abandonment, the continuing struggle to achieve success in a world that had rejected and robbed the Native American Indian and condemned them to second class status.  It would seem that even today, they hold true to their traditions and seek help from their spirit world to provide answers for their questions and solutions to their problems, to find the justice they continue to seek.