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Reviewlettes: Family Epics I Read on Vacation

larose and homegoing

During my vacation last month to Milwaukee and Chicago, I found myself totally absorbed in a couple of big, epic family stories. While they’re set in totally different places, both authors are really skilled at weaving together historical and contemporary threads. And despite covering huge topics, both books manage to feel specific and character-driven in a way that kept me turning the pages.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, LaRose, starts out with a rather horrifying premise. While out hunting deer, Landreaux Iron kills five-year-old Dusty Ravich, the youngest child of a neighboring family. Law enforcement rules the shooting an accident, but Landreaux can’t accept that answer. After consulting with their ancestors via a sweat lodge, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, give their son, LaRose, to the Ravich family as an act of atonement. Peter, his wife Nola, and his daughter Maggie welcome the boy into their family, although LaRose maintains a connection to his parents and siblings, tieing the two families together while other forces in their community threaten to topple the carefully balanced peace.

It’s hard to say enough wonderful things about this book. It manages to perfectly balance beautiful writing, a compelling plot, and historical context in a way that’s easy to read while still being substantial. Maybe that’s sounds a little snobby, I don’t know, but it’s the perfect kind of balance I feel like I look for in fiction. While the story of how the Irons and Ravich families manage to survive after a terrible loss is gripping, I also loved the way Erdrich weaves in history – LaRose is the most recent in a line of family members with that name, all previously women, with their own harrowing stories. Erdrich’s just an incredible writer, who is able to blend history and contemporary storytelling so beautifully – I really want to dive into more of her backlist later this summer.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I stood in line to get a copy of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi at Book Expo America because a bunch of the writers at Book Riot have been raving about this one, and for good reason – it’s pretty stellar. Homegoing starts with the story of two half sisters living in different villages in Ghana. Effia is forced to marry an Englishman who is part of the British slave trade in that region. Esi is a prisoner of the British who is eventually sold into the Gold Coast slave trade and send to America. Each chapter of the book follows the generations on both sides of the family, looking at the way the slave trade affected individuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, touching on colonization, the Civil War, the Great Migration, and on into the present.

This book is just so great. I know I’m going to be recommending it a lot. I loved the structure, which is right in between interconnected short stories and an epic family drama. You get a sense of the big story of these families and how they fit into history, but every chapter is also a portrait of an individual at those times. It manages to be both very specific and incredibly broad, which feels like such an achievement. And through all of that, it’s just a really great read – I started this one on my plane ride home from BEA and hated putting it down until I was finished.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

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  • Sarah's Book Shelves June 9, 2016, 6:36 am

    I just downloaded the sample of Homegoing…will dig in soon!

  • Shannon @ River City Reading June 9, 2016, 6:43 am

    I had the same experience with Homegoing, reading it on the plane home from BEA, and it was a really perfect way to read. I’ve been going back and forth on LaRose, but I think you’ve sold me!

    • Kim June 12, 2016, 9:31 am

      I like it a lot! I was a little nervous that it would be too dark, but I think it veers away from that in some really wonderful ways. And Erdrich is such a wonderful writer, everything she does is great.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes June 9, 2016, 7:21 am

    You’ve totally sold me on Homegoing. I need my library hold to come in like now!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 9, 2016, 8:18 am

    Oh wow, LaRose sounds gut wrenching and thought provoking.

  • Amanda June 9, 2016, 12:05 pm

    I’ve been wanting to get to LaRose but also afraid. Her books are so powerful and really kind of brutal while so well done. You’re making me determined to move it up my list and to add Homegoing to the library shelf!

    • Kim June 12, 2016, 9:33 am

      This one never really struck me as brutal to read in the way that, say, The Round House was at points. It certainly starts in an awful place, but a lot of what comes after is about redemption (even if there are parts that are hard to read).

  • tanya (52 books or bust) June 10, 2016, 3:58 am

    I can’t wait to read Homegoing. I want it to be a big book this year.

  • Kailana June 11, 2016, 8:39 am

    I want to read both of these. I knew that was going to start happening as I started seeing reviews of BEA books. It was easier to resist when it was just pretty pictures of book piles. lol

  • Jenny @ Reading the End June 11, 2016, 4:48 pm

    I just finished LaRose and really, really liked it. My favorite thing was that nothing bad happened to Maggie in the end — she was so angry that I was sure something bad was going to happen to her, and when it didn’t, it was just such an enormous, joyous relief. I love an angry girl character like that.

    I HOPE I LIKE HOMEGOING. On one hand, it sounds v. relevant to my interests, and on the other hand, I’m not typically a huge family saga person. Intergenerational epics do not tend to hold my interest. So we’ll see!

    • Kim June 12, 2016, 9:35 am

      I’m not always a big family saga person either, but I loved the structure of this one — it read a lot like interconnected short stories, which is a format I usually enjoy. It’s a little like The Shore, perhaps, although the connections between stories are way more obvious in Homegoing. So, I think give it a try and see what you think!

  • Andi June 15, 2016, 11:16 am

    Ok, I already had Homegoing on my radar, but now I want to read LaRose too. What a great review, Kim! I’ve always wondered where to start with Erdrich, and this might be just the thing.

    • Kim June 19, 2016, 7:10 pm

      I’ve only read her most recent books, so I couldn’t recommend a place to start with her entire canon. But LaRose is excellent, so it can’t be a bad place 🙂

  • Ardene June 17, 2016, 2:13 pm

    I’m listening to LaRose right now, and enjoying it. I first tried Erdrich in my 20s when Sugar The Beet Queen made a lot of noise, and didn’t get it. I tried her again, much later (40s?) with Four Souls and then The Painted Drum, and loved them. I haven’t read everything she’s written, but I like her a lot.

    I’m probably going to buy Homegoing since it’s been on my radar awhile and isn’t showing up in my library’s catalog. Glad to know it’s worth the read.

    • Kim June 19, 2016, 7:07 pm

      I haven’t read much of Erdrich’s backlist, but she’s one author I want to keep diving into because I’ve loved her recent books.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey June 17, 2016, 10:56 pm

    I’ve been hearing great things about Homegoing! Seems like it was wroth the wait 🙂

  • susan June 19, 2016, 8:09 pm

    I’m glad to hear Homegoing is a good read. I have it on my summer list and hope to get to it!