LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Set in North Dakota in 1999, Louise Erdrich's LaRose gives us a unique tour of loss, grief, fraternity, addiction and the end of the world. Though, tour is not the right word, really. You are not a visitor to this book, you become family, invited in to stay and know all Erdrich's characters intimately. Like LaRose and like all those who came before him, you are able to float above the pages of this book and view the legacy of their people from generation to generation.
The premise of this book is a challenging one. It opens with two couples and neighbors - the Irons and the Ravichs - related through half-sisterhood, each with young sons the same age. When out hunting, the father of one family shoots and kills the son of the other. Following Native American tradition, the living son, LaRose, is offered in place of the lost one. What follows is an unconventional arrangement that bends but does not break the families, as they come to understand parenthood, sisterhood and brotherhood in new, breathtaking ways.
LaRose is not the only shared son. There is also an older boy hosted in the Iron household. His father, Romeo, lives nearby, but always in or near poverty. And, despite entrusting his son to the Irons, he has a deep-rooted hatred for the father and regularly plots to bring him down. And the Iron father, despite his name, does have weaknesses to be exploited. There is loneliness and pain amongst family too sometimes.
As these narratives unfold, we are also confronted with past and future. We are given glimpses of the past through the experiences of previous LaRoses - a history of the namesake - and come to learn about what drove a wedge between the Iron family and Romeo. We are also in the year 1999, at the cusp of 2000, when the world could very well end. And, with the loss of a son, would it be so surprising?
Perhaps not the high praise I mean it to be, but this is a very balanced read. It is heavy and light, warm and cold, and leaves you with the sense that you have known the Irons and Ravichs, and seen their struggles, and hoped for their futures. It keeps going after it ends, just like the LaRose of yesterday, LaRose today and the LaRose who will ultimately follow.