what i’m not sure i can say

I’m in a book club. It’s the ladies of our group of friends. We just started in September or so. I’ve never been part of a book club that included more than two people. (Yes, two-person book clubs are nice.) This is really quite lovely. Since we’re all friends already and see each other with some regularity, it’s pretty smooth. I’ve heard of book clubs that are actually social clubs that don’t talk about the books; we’re not totally like that. I think it helps that we also have a librarian in our group who prints off discussion questions for us.

Our book club is meeting this evening. We read LaRose by Louise Erdrich. (And yes, if you’re concerned, there will be spoilers. I guess. I’m just going to write about the book and my thoughts. So go elsewhere if you don’t want details.)

(You’re sure you want to be here?)

I love Louise Erdrich. I’ve read quite a few of her books over the years. Every single one of them is like reentering a conversation with an old friend or like pulling on your most comfortable, softest sweater on the first chilly day of fall. I know that I will finish her books with a sense of contentment, revelation, redemption—and I’ll be a little sorry to turn the last page.

This book was no exception. But it was also a not-so-easy read, more like putting on your second most comfortable sweater. This book is about a tragic story: Two families with young boys. The father of one family is out hunting when he accidentally shoots and kills the boy from the other family. For retribution, for attempted healing, for peace, he and his wife give their son to the family who lost their boy. They share the living—and the dead.

This story has a few things I’m not quite ready for yet: guns and attempted suicide. The mother of the boy who was killed attempts suicide, almost flirts with it. She plans her death and even, I would say, practices (not attempts) it. Her daughter, the sister of the boy who was killed, finds her mother in the barn standing on a chair with a rope around her neck. It is a tense moment, a brilliantly written moment. The mother and daughter locked in the kick of a foot. The mother does not commit suicide, but she and the daughter share the secret that she could, that she might, that she nearly did.

The daughter is later driving with her friends, the sisters of the living boy, after volleyball tryouts. Erdrich writes:

You were suicidal out there [on the court]!

Snow laughed. They were driving back. Neither of them saw Maggie’s face freeze at the word, saw her eyes lose focus. She was suddenly in the barn—her mom standing high in the slant of light. Zip. She ricocheted back into the car.

“Oh yes,” I thought as I read this bit. “That’s exactly what it feels like. Snapped away, snapped back.” I’ve written every so often on Facebook about the importance of words, the shock it is when I hear someone—in a show, on the radio, in casual conversation—say, “I could kill myself!” or “Just kill me now!” I know it’s a figure of speech. I know it’s exaggeration. I also know that my heart skips a beat, and I look a little closer at the person who says it. Do they mean it? Are they okay? Did they really just say that? Zip.

This book does grief well. The families grapple with the boy’s death and the other boy’s liminal state between families. They muddle through the messy, ugly, painful bits of what it is to grieve.

At one point, the dad who killed the boy is dropping off his boy to the other family (think of it like shared custody).

He hugged his son just before LaRose swung out of the car with his pack on his shoulder.

It’s all good, Landreaux muttered.

He was not all good, would never be; yet there were slender threads of okay.

“Slender threads of okay.” It is oh-so tempting to claim that “it’s all good” or “it’s fine” or “it is what it is.” And maybe that’s true. But it’s much more often true that it isn’t good at all, that a situation is utterly awful, that it shouldn’t have to be the way it is. What I love about this snippet from the book is that Erdrich recognizes just that. This situation between the families is not good and should not have happened. It did, and a sea change occurred. That doesn’t mean it will always be ungood or overwhelming or suffocating. There are moments, flashes of good, hints of steadiness.

These slender threads are what get us through the process; we weave them together out of desperation to hold on to something solid, maybe even to make something beautiful from something scattered, shattered. Eventually the weaving becomes less about determination to survive from one moment to the next and more about—no, it’s always about that, but it’s less intense perhaps.

Genetics are odd things. Roots and who we are, where we come from, they go deep. When my husband and I went to Ireland last year, I felt home in a way I’ve never felt elsewhere. We’ve had several generations between the Irish who came here and me. And still, there was a belonging that I didn’t think would exist—and would think imagined if it were someone else writing about this. So Erdrich:

Going up against demons was Randall’s work. Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history. What was in that history? What sort of knowledge? Who had they been? What were they now? Why so much fucked-upness wherever you turned?

As we approach Ryan’s anniversary in a little over a month, my mind is turning over our family’s complex history and the fucked-upness of some of it. The tragedy of it gets overwhelming and over-big pretty quickly. And then I think that our fucked-upness is nothing compared to a lot of other people’s fucked-upness. Overwhelming. Over-big. Quick.

I reach for the slender threads. I weave and braid and quilt them together. In and out, up and down. Trusting that more threads will show up. Above I noted that Erdrich’s families share the living and the dead. So too do we. And that’s why I kept reading this book that I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading: I needed the story of people who took their tattered remnants and somehow became, not whole, but holy.