Louise Erdrich, LaRose, Hearts

(side note: I have a new story out in the January/February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which is really huge for me, because….Ursula LeGuin has had stories published in that magazine! Also I’ve been trying to get in there for, oh, about 13 years…)

Back in the summer, I was going through a LaRose / Louise Erdrich obsession, so, in my obsessed state, I decided to go through the novel and make a list of how Louise Erdrich describes and uses her characters’ hearts. I remember being interested in a couple things: first, simply, that people’s hearts kept coming up throughout the book. It seemed an unusual descriptive point to keep circling around. But also I was interested in how Erdrich sidestepped cliche and managed to make her heart descriptions meaningful, moving, and illuminating. That’s really hard to do. It’s like trying to describe multiple characters’ tears (“Never describe your character’s tears,” I remember one of my writing teachers once telling me). Just rereading the experts below makes me want to reread LaRose again or maybe read everything Erdrich has ever written. But what about Shirley Jackson?! What about all the great sounding books on all the best of 2016 lists? What about rereading, and rereading, and rereading The Throwback Special, my latest obsession? Anyhow, here are a lot of ways that Erdrich describes hearts.  


He lets Landreaux come close enough for him to take the infallible shot. Closer and closer yet. There it is. Peter squeezes the trigger gently with his heart exploding. Nothing.


The birds were silent. Snow was falling off the trees that day. She had scrubbed her body red with snow. She threw off everything and lay naked in the snow asking to be dead. She tried not to move, but the cold stabbed ice into her heart and she began to suffer intensely. A person from the other world came. The being was pale blue without definite form. It took care of her, dressed her, tied on her makazinan, blew the lice off, and wrapped her in a new blanket, saying, Call upon me when this happens and you shall live.


Landreaux sat down at the table, touched the edge. He didn’t want to speak, to bring up the thing he dreaded. He could feel the tension bubbling up inside, the quickened pump of his heart.

The agreement, whatever we call it, Peter started.

Landreaux just nodded, staring at his fingers.

The question is, said Peter.

Landreaux’s heart just quit.

The question is, said Peter. What’s it doing to him?

Landreaux’s heart started beating again.

What’s it doing to him, he weakly said.


You dove, he said. He stroked her shoulder all one way, like feathers.

A mean dove. Who will peck out your heart, she said.

That would hurt.

I can’t help myself. Will you stay with me, she said, suddenly, if I go crazy?

There was desolation in her voice, so he tried to joke.

Well, you already are crazy.

He felt tears on his chest. Oh, he’d gone too far.

In a good way. I love your crazy!


The sugar would jangle her nerves, she thought, but it didn’t. It slowed her heart. A dopey, fuzzy wash of pleasure covered her and she nearly blanked out before she made it to the couch.


Then she had another thought— their tradition worked. Dazzling act. How could she or Peter harm the father of the son they’d been given? She closed her eyes and felt the heavy warmth of LaRose as she rocked him to sleep,

Nola’s face darkened. She was panting hard now, with the shut ups adding to the you are disgusting. Maggie leaned her chair back, satisfied. She excused herself and sauntered up the stairs. Nola’s eyes followed her daughter, sour death rays. She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair. Quietly, sinking back into her chair, she experimentally ate a green bean off the end of her fork. Neither Peter nor LaRose seemed to notice. So it wasn’t her? She was not disgusting? A tear dropped on her plate.


Landreaux should have not imagined it was over and done with— because a man had ears, tough little pinned-back ears that pricked up when people whispered. A man had a brain that decoded guarded talk between professionals. A man’s heart, shriveled raisin, prune of loneliness, burnt clam, understood what it was to lose out on love. And lose to a lying liar. Romeo bet his livid black heart could burst Landreaux’s baggy heart sack. If he could just get something solid on Landreaux to bring him down.


One day she was sitting high in a tree, pulling apart a wood tick. Something large flowed at her, ghost-silent. She flattened against the bark. Hung on. She felt fingers rake her hair lightly and the thing rushed up, soundlessly sucked into the leaves. She didn’t scare easy, but her breath squeezed off. She scrambled halfway down and huddled against the trunk. It was coming at her again, she could feel it. An owl with great golden eyes lighted on the branch before her, clacked its beak, fixed her with supernatural hunger. She looked straight back. At that moment her heart flung wide and she allowed the owl into her body. Then it sprang. She threw her arms up and it left razor cuts on the backs of her wrists. Her screams impressed it, though. It kept a distance while she climbed the rest of the way down. It swooped her once again, raising the hair on her scalp as she barged through the scrub.


The normal, nonsarcastic answer fell sweetly on Nola. She loved Maggie with all of the ripped-up pieces of her heart now. Nola turned to the cutting board and started sawing away at potatoes with a steak knife. Things were disappearing. She was losing things right and left, running out of things, failing to buy things, forgetting. But these matters were not as important as other people seemed to think. They were not crucial. In fact, they didn’t matter at all.

He came back into his body. He could not inhabit himself without her. He had that roughed-up Slav shell and inside a milky tender heart. He had guarded it carefully before Nola. There was nobody else for him but this one woman— he might hate her sometimes, but he would go to hell for her and save her cakes.


But first his hands, shaky. His chest was stopped up. His breath weak. He put his hand to his chest and closed his eyes.

Open, he said.

He always had trouble opening his heart. Tonight it was stuck again. It was a wooden chest secured by locked iron bands. An army duffel, rusted zipper. Kitchen cupboards glued shut. Tabernacle. Desk. Closet. He had to wedge apart doors, lift covers. He was always disappointed to find a drab or menacing interior. To make a welcoming place of his heart was mentally slippery work. Sometimes cleaning was involved, rearrangements. He had to dust. He had to throw out old junk to make room. It was all so tedious, but he worked at the project until he had the whole damned lot of Emmaline’s family in there and could slam it shut, exhausted, with Emmaline in the center and safe from him.


From there, he can see down the hill into the marrow of the reservation town. High and mentally blasted as he is, he sees into each heart. Pain is dotted all around, glowing from the deep chest wells of his people. To the west the hearts of the dead still pulse, burning soft and green in their caskets. They stream out pale light from the earth. And to the south there are the buffalo that the tribe has bought for tourism purposes. A darkly gathered congregation. Their hearts also on fire with the dreadful message of their extinction. Their ghostly gathering now. Like us, a symbol of resistance, thinks Romeo. Like us, now rambling around in a little pen of hay getting fat. Like us, their hearts visible as lamps in the dust.


He lets Landreaux come close enough for him to take the infallible shot. Closer and closer yet. There it is. Peter squeezes the trigger gently with his heart exploding. Nothing.


Then she looked straight at Hollis again and all her heart came into her face. If he had not been so polite, trying to make like he didn’t notice her honk. If he had just turned back in time to see the look on her face. He would have known. He would have known in all certainty. Her love was pouring straight out of her eyes. But he was still staring at the yard when her expression froze, then neutralized. He was thinking, Maybe I can grow some grass there, in those bare spots. Maybe she would like that.


After a hopeless moment, watching the big man trudge toward him, Father Travis felt the wildness burst from a space below his heart. The sound came out weird. Like a jackal. Something in a zoo. He didn’t recognize this sound he was making until it looped into a kind of laughter.



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