LaRose by Louise Erdrich

An unemotional study of grieving…

🙂 🙂 😐

laroseAs he does every year, Landreaux is hunting deer on his land. In the evening light, he raises his gun, fires and misses the deer. But in a tragic accident, his bullet hits Dusty, the young son of his neighbour, who is sitting in a nearby tree, killing him. In an agony of remorse, Landreaux and his wife participate in a Native American ceremony, which leads them to decide that the only way to make restitution is to give their own young son, LaRose, to the grieving family. At first, Dusty’s mother Nola agrees to this arrangement only out of bitterness, to cause Landreaux and Emmeline to feel some of the grief and loss she herself is going through, but soon Nola comes to dote on LaRose, clinging to him as she struggles to get over the death of her son. LaRose is a name that has been passed down the generations, and as well as the present day story, the reader is taken back in time to learn of the earlier LaRoses and, through them, of some of the history of the Native American culture over the last few centuries.

Sounds great, and this was one of my most anticipated books of the summer, having heard so many good things about Louise Erdrich’s writing. Unfortunately, I found the writing of this one cold, lacking any emotional depth despite the subject matter, an exercise in telling rather than showing. There is an attempt to build a level of suspense by leaving it a little unclear as to how culpable Landreaux was for the death of Dusty. Was it simply an unfortunate accident, or had Landreaux, a recovering alcoholic, perhaps been high on medication he had stolen from some of the elderly clients he cared for? But I’m afraid this isn’t enough to lift the basic story. In reality, it’s simply a lengthy, monotone account of the grief process of all the people involved in the event – parents, siblings and the wider community.

The story of the original LaRose is more interesting, casting some light on the culture clash in the early days of European settlement of America. There is a good deal of Native American mysticism in these passages, which somehow works fine in the context of the earlier time period, but feels totally out of place when it’s carried forward into the modern day. I do realise that my own rational prejudices are getting in the way, but being asked to accept that the current LaRose has some kind of supernatural gift, inherited from his ancestors, of leaving his body to commune with the dead was too much for me to swallow, I fear.

Putting that aside, the insights into Native American culture past and present are the most interesting parts of the book. Erdrich doesn’t romanticise it – she gives us a picture of relative poverty, not just in economic terms but in aspiration; a society where alcoholism and drug-taking are a kind of escape. She shows how some customs have survived but others have been forgotten, or revived after a period of suppression. She touches on intermarriage and how that has affected the culture; on the boarding schools where Native American children were sent to be assimilated into the European American culture; on how differently Native Americans have been treated through the generations in terms of rights – education, healthcare, etc. She avoids polemics, thankfully, and draws no conclusions – she simply paints the picture and leaves the reader to consider it.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

In the present day, however, which is the bulk of the book, we merely flick from person to person, seeing snapshots of their grief at different stages. The sections about the children are more interesting, too young at the time of the incident to feel Dusty’s loss in quite the same way as the adults, and coping more with the impact of it on their parents than on themselves. But the sections about the parents felt oddly bland, never inspiring in me any kind of real emotional reaction to what they were going through. There’s no real momentum, nothing we’re aiming towards except perhaps an end to grief and, in the end, it’s all tied up very neatly – too neatly. I often complain about books sagging in the middle – just for a change, I’m complaining that, though the middle third of this one was quite interesting, both the beginning and end sagged, and never inspired me to care about the characters. In truth, while it’s technically well written, my major response to it was a feeling of boredom and a desire to reach the end. And, when I did, I wasn’t convinced the journey had been worthwhile.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 10
Book 10

57 thoughts on “LaRose by Louise Erdrich

  1. Oh, I am sorry to hear that this one didn’t do it for you, FictionFan. The premise is, as you say, so interesting. And so is the information about Native American history and cultures. But if you’re going to tell a story about grief, I think you draw readers in more by helping them to feel it. And that means showing. Well, at least you ticked one off your ’20 books’ list.

    • Yes, I fear the ’20 books’ have turned out to be a very mixed bag this year! It’s the same thing I seem to be moaning about more and more – the lack of a decent story to underpin the points the author wants to make. This one wasn’t polemical at least, but apart from the historical bit, it was really almost entirely observational. Not my kind of thing, sadly.

      • Oh, bugger, I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, it’s got all the sort of nonsense those competitions like – dead kids, women ‘dealing with their emotions’, split timeline… Makes me want wine just thinking about it 😉

            • Hahaha! Brilliant plan! I don’t ask for much in life – regular coffee, plentiful cake and books with stories! I always say I’ll never be a writer ‘cos I can’t think of plots – I’m beginning to think I’m setting the bar too high… 😉

            • You could absolutely be a writer, I think you should give it a go! Plots get easier once you start on them and they don’t even have to make sense, really. You would be doing the literary world a favour, I say!

            • Pfft! Tell them to shove their star where the sun don’t shine. You probably won’t win any prizes, but people will actually want to read your book.

    • I must admit it was surprisingly undisturbing, given the subject matter. I found the bits sets in the past had more emotional content than the present day stuff, and rather wished the whole book had been about that part of the story…

  2. I was so looking forward to this one! But, alas, I cannot now, as I fear the same reaction. Lack of emtional depth is a deal breaker, even if the premise and subject matter interests me. However, I always appreciate and enjoy your review, FF!

    • Oh, but I hate putting people off books they’re looking forward to! Maybe you’d love it! Reviews are pretty mixed – plenty like mine, but plenty who seem to have enjoyed it much more…

  3. Oh no, I was going to read this one after I read ‘Barkskins’; both of which rely on similar Native American history (unless I’m mistaken). Now, I’m not so sure

  4. I must admit I kind of had an instinctive sniff that this might be one to avoid, when it was offered on the Galley…………….Will give my nose a pat on the back (twists into a position Simone Biles might envy, if only I could have done it with a smidgeon of her athletic grace……….fear I now need an osteopath appointment)

    • I probably wouldn’t have been captured by the blurb if I hadn’t heard so much praise of her in general. Maybe this is just the wrong book. But I’m in no rush now to try another… Your nose looks vey original stuck in the middle of your back but you’ll need to cut little holes in your clothes or you’ll suffocate!!

  5. I’m sorry this one didn’t work out for you, FF. I have Erdrich’s The Round House in my too-be-read bookcases somewhere; I’m hoping I have better luck with it than you had with this one!

    • I have The Round House on my wishlist and, despite my disappointment with this one, will read it sometime. I get the impression from reviews from people who’ve read several of her books that this one isn’t her best, so I won’t hold it against her… well, not for too long, anyway… 😉

    • Ha! Yes, oddly I’d have been far more upset if he’d hit the deer! I kinda wish I’d gone with The Round House too – it seems to have been much better received all round.

  6. So he fired a gun at a deer and hit a fellow sitting in a tree? Makes me wonder how tall the deer was. Maybe it was flying! Sooooo….this reminds me. There’s actually this very creepy deer-like thing in Roman mythology, I think. It goes about killing people and whatnot. You know, impaling them. Bet it even flies!

    I think it’s a plot. He just wanted to get rid of his son from the beginning.

    • Maybe it was a very short tree! Ooh, I don’t know about that… but there’s a kinda deer-like thingy in Harry Potter that scares the evil Dementors, who drive people mad by sucking out all the happiness in them… (a bit like Mr G, now I think of it)

      See, that would have made a much better book…

        • Gotta admit I’m becoming sick to death of the little blighter – the book blogosphere is stuffed to bursting with HP fan-worship since the new book came out. I’m feeling nauseous.

          Tick, tick – listen to that groovy metronome rhythm! Do you think he needs that to remind him what bit of the song he’s at? Or does it maybe help him to remember how long he needs to leave his curlers in for?

          • There’s a new book? Haha. I knew that was going to happen eventually. Up Mars, down Eros. Yo.

            That’s the drummer! *laughs* You’re the only person I know who doesn’t like drums. It’s kinda a bossa nova beat. You need it, see!

            • Well, it’s a play rather than a book really, but still. Yucketh! Haha! Where did that come from?

              Do not need it! Do not even want it!! It’s like listening to an old-fashioned clock, or a bomb about to go off! I don’t always hate drums, but Kenny ALWAYS has that annoying tick-tick-tick going on… grrr!

            • I don’t know…I think it’s what that super epic bad guy says in Ben Hur all the time. But I can’t remember. Still, it’s a great saying. Basically, down love up war! Nice.

              Percussion is grand! Always! You must take a drum class now.

  7. Oh dear this sounds like a mixed bag of a book – very unusual to have a rise in the middle of a book instead of a sag – Having read books that deal with grief with a fresh pair of eyes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s such a hard subject to truly capture from a writer’s point of view it is no wonder that this emotion isn’t a good subject to use to underpin a story. Great review as always though. Hope you get a better book next time.

    • It is a difficult one – if they make it too over the top, it can feel like emotional manipulation, but if they don’t it can feel cold, like this one. The thing is we all react differently in real life, so trying to capture an emotion is always going to register more with some people than others. The next review might possibly be a 5-star – hurrah!!!

  8. Native American funerals are VERY long. Did she describe it in depth? Also, I know that a lot of symbolism still exists, such as what it means when a crow dies, or things like that. I’ve never heard of anyone thinking that a boy could be (in a way) the ghost of his ancestors! Sounds like a slippery book.

    • No, she didn’t, I don’t think. It kinda leapt to the aftermath. It would be interesting to know how authentic her depiction of the Native American culture is. I felt the society side felt quite realistic but was less convinced by the mystical side. I did find it disappointing overall – maybe my expectations were too high…

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for some of the same reasons you didn’t. The emotional withholding meant I didn’t feel manipulated into feeling grief. And like you I really enjoyed the historical backstory.

    My one beef was the build up of expectation that something pretty awful was brewing, but it kind of just fizzled out instead. I plan to read more Erdrich 😊

    • Yes, that’s a good point – she could so easily have let it tip over into a kind of maudlin wallowing. I think mainly I felt it needed more story in the present day – it didn’t seem to go anywhere much and was all too neat at the end. But I really enjoyed the original LaRose’s story, and will read more of her too at some point. I’ve heard good things about The Round House…

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