Grief, atonement and tradition are all bound together in LaRose by Louise Erdrich. The title refers not only to the young boy shuttled back and forth between two families, but also previous ancestors, all women, with the same name.
LaRose’s father accidently shoots his young son’s best friend, the child of neighbors. As part of Ojibwe custom of retribution, La Rose’s parents give him to the grieving parents. Interspersed with the adjustments this entails are stories of the original LaRose, a strong, intelligent woman able to see more than others with knowledge others don’t possess. Her traits, that include tribal medicine and a keen awareness of others, are passed down through four generations. Even the youngest of the namesakes has special, insightful characteristics.
This is more than an account about two families who lose a son. Although, the descriptions of the two sets of parents and siblings are full of depth and richness. It is also a narrative that examines the personal histories of many of the reservation’s residents, including the parish priest and a ne’er-do-well.
Erdrich blends the traditional Indian ways with modern life; the novel begins in 1999. Humor, rich descriptions of the landscape and dynamic characters make this an engaging work. It is sad, even heartbreakingly so; yet there are also moments of joy and revelation of life’s beauty.
Ultimately, this is a love story – in fact, many love stories: parental love and sacrifice; husband and wife love (and sacrifice); the relationships among siblings; and new relationships.
Although it’s only been in the hands of the general public for little more than a month, the reviews for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman have been mixed. Now I see why, it’s difficult to know whether this is because long-standing images have been shattered, if the story is less engaging or if the writing simply isn’t as strong as To Kill a Mockingbird: an integral part of American culture since its publication 55 years ago. The 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning novel is still taught in classrooms, and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in the movie adaptation remains iconic.
Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, returns to Maycomb, Ala., from New York City. Atticus is ailing and many of the familiar characters from Mockingbird reappear to remind Scout, and readers, how some things change and some never do.
Scout’s memories are mixed with her current day events as she begins to see her hometown and, especially, her father in a new, unflattering light.
My take is that the story, albeit worth reading, is less engrossing due to lackluster prose. In fact, I found it easy to put down and had to remind myself of its imminent library due date.
Racism and human imperfection are looming themes. Given what’s happening across the country, the former continues needing to be more openly addressed. Perhaps it takes seeing Atticus Finch as a racist, despite his efforts at justification, for us to see the deep-rooted problem. As for the latter, that’s something we just have to accept.
Go Set a Watchman
Isabel Allende is a master storyteller. Her characters have depth; their lives are full of mystery, love and befuddlement. Her most recent novel, Maya’s Notebook, is no exception. Well, it is, because it’s exceptional – even for Allende.
Maya is a 19-year-old girl on the lam on a remote island off the coast of Chile, her grandmother’s homeland. Maya was raised in Berkeley by her grandparents, a couple remarkable in their differences and their passion for life. Maya’s father floats in and out in a minor role; her mother doesn’t even rate that distinction. Several stories are told through Maya’s journal. She recounts her magical childhood, her arrival in Chiloe’ and counters these almost idyllic recollections with the explanation of why she is in hiding. The book’s first sentence, while seemingly melodramatic, creates suspense: “… if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me.”
Maya writes of her past and present in chronological order until the two eventually intersect. She begins with how her grandparents met and moves into how, as an infant, she came to live with them. Allende builds tension through Maya’s descriptions of her avalanche of mistakes made as an adolescent. Grief and environment contributed to one bad decision after another. Yet, a sense of calm surfaces as Maya relates her life in Chiloe’ while learning to appreciate the world around her and her place in it.
Harper Collins, 2013