I never thought I would do such a thing,” Louise Erdrich says, referring to the opening scene in her 15th novel, LaRose (Harper, May), in which Landreaux Iron shoots his neighbors’ young son, Dusty, after mistaking the child for a deer. The accident and its aftermath set off a chain of events that touches an entire community when Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, hand over their own five-year-old son, LaRose, for the Ravich family to raise, in an attempt at reparation.
There were “dozens and dozens of starts on the book,” Erdrich, 61, explains as we sip tea in a cozy restaurant next door to Birchbark Books and Native Arts, the idiosyncratic little indie bookstore that Erdrich has operated for more than 15 years in an upscale Minneapolis neighborhood. “Suddenly I wrote this [opening scene] out without really thinking about it. I thought, this is a really sad short story; I never expected it to turn into a book. But it just kept rolling—one character would unscroll from the next. It got more complicated as I went along, so I continued with it.”
As is typical in Erdrich’s novels, LaRose is a nonlinear yet seamless tapestry of interconnected tales spun from family stories, lore, and Ojibwe legends. While LaRose follows the Irons, who live on a reservation in rural North Dakota, and the Raviches, who live in the blue-collar town adjacent to it, the story expands to include their extended families, neighbors, and even enemies. An ordinary little boy caught up in extraordinary circumstances, LaRose is the fifth LaRose in his family, and tales of his four female ancestral namesakes and the demons—literally, in some instances—they had to confront are enmeshed within the narrative. It is a plot device that Erdrich used, she explains, to explore “how much thought and suffering went into being a LaRose,” and “why LaRose was the way he was,” an even-tempered and adaptable boy who is able to commune with the spirit world that his ancestors and Dusty inhabit. “He’s a good kid; nobody ever writes about the good kids,” Erdrich says, “so I let him be as good as he could be.”
LaRose is a family name that has always resonated with Erdrich, who is of French-Ojibwe heritage on her mother’s side. The title isn’t the only thing that Erdrich has appropriated from the family archives. The cover art, designed by her daughter Aza, an accomplished artist and a professional graphic designer in Minneapolis, replicates a handwriting exercise executed as a schoolboy by Erdrich’s maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. Like many Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gourneau attended one of the boarding schools established across the U.S. to forcibly assimilate Native children into the dominant European-American culture—an experience that several of LaRose’s eponymous ancestors also endure.
Gourneau later became the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, of which Erdrich is a registered member. The daughter of two teachers who taught at a boarding school, Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, a small town straddling the North Dakota–Minnesota state line about 300 miles southeast of Turtle Mountain. Though Erdrich has lived in Minneapolis for more than 20 years, she travels back to her hometown to visit family there every four to six weeks.
The premise of LaRose began with a kernel of truth. In her acknowledgements, Erdrich thanks her mother for mentioning a story of parents on the reservation who were responsible for the death of a child and who subsequently allowed the victim’s family to adopt their own child. “That one germ of a story is all I can point to that really happened in this book,” Erdrich explains. “I don’t know the people involved, I don’t know anything more about it. The rest is all imagination.” The story evolved, she says, as she reflected on the impact that such a situation would have on the members of the families, especially the siblings of both children.
“What about the kids? What happens to them when something of this sort happens?” Erdrich, who is the mother of four daughters, recalls asking herself. “How do people make their lives work—or not work—as this goes along?”
Emphasizing how much she enjoyed writing about the relationship that develops between Dusty’s older sister, Maggie, and LaRose, Erdrich laughs as she insists that writing about the rebellious Maggie convinced her to persist in weaving a tale that moves backward and forward in time and place, with key scenes set in such places as an isolated Ojibwe trading post, a 19th-century sanitarium for tuberculosis patients overlooking the Mississippi River, a turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania boarding school, a 1970s-era downtown Minneapolis squatters’ encampment, and a small-town school gym during a fiercely waged girls’ volleyball game. Erdrich claims that she didn’t know until she was deep into the writing process how all the disparate threads would eventually fit together. “I found out in the writing [of LaRose] what was going to happen,” Erdrich says. “And then, after a year or two, it made sense.” By contrast, she knew early on how her 2012 National Book Award–winning The Round House would end. Erdrich says she wrote the last page well before completing it.
Erdrich’s motivation in writing LaRose also stemmed from her interest in the shortcomings of the “Western justice system,” which, she explains, “really has to do with assessing and finding guilt or innocence, and punishing it one way or another.” She notes that she’s heard over the years of other situations in which people have sought or dispensed justice outside of the legal system. In a way, writing LaRose fulfills to some degree Erdrich’s own quest for justice—against a U.S. president and administration who went to war over allegations of Iraq’s possession weapons of mass destruction. Explaining why LaRose opens in 1999 and takes places over the course of four years, Erdrich says that she “wanted to talk about what it was like for people to live with the consequences of the WMD deception that occurred.”
Erdrich’s passion is evident as she talks about the “horrific, indescribable war” with Iraq that destabilized the Middle East and caused so much anguish, including in her hometown, citing a young soldier from Wahpeton who died in Iraq and has a memorial bench dedicated to him. She also points out that a greater percentage of soldiers from North Dakotans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan than those from just about any other state, and that, in proportion to the general population, more Natives have fought for the U.S. in wars than just about any other ethnic group.
Although Erdrich expresses a righteous anger against real-life politicians, there is a forgiveness extended to even the most unsavory of her fictional characters, such as Romeo, the petty thief and drug addict, who has nursed a grudge against Landreaux for decades. His anger toward Landreaux prompts Romeo to make false allegations, analogous to those of the “warmongers” in the Bush administration, Erdrich says, who constructed the weapons-of-mass-destruction propaganda that resulted in war.
“What am I doing?” Erdrich recalls thinking to herself as she wrote the final chapter in LaRose, in which Romeo reconciles somewhat with Landreaux and tries to prevent his estranged son from going off to war. “I was really upset at myself for redeeming [Romeo] after what happened.” But then, there’s the side of Erdrich that revels in Romeo’s everyday scamming of the people around him. “There’s no apology,” she says. “I enjoyed writing about [him].” Perhaps because it’s important to her, Erdrich says, that people do not have to conform to society’s expectations. After all, she adds, living life on her own terms is “how I got to be the way I am.”