I can’t remember my great grandmother. She died just before I turned five, and she’d been suffering from dementia long enough that she likely wouldn’t have known my face or name. If, in some hypothetical world, we were to pass each other on the street, I am unsure if I would even recognize her. More likely she would be a stranger to me, as we’ve never really met, never shared a conversation, never smiled over dinner or laughed together over a joke.
Yet, despite all this, I feel that I know her. I feel close to her. Sometimes, I wonder what she would think about where I am in my life and what I am doing. Sometimes, I wish I could ask.
For a long time, I couldn’t find a way to describe how I felt; there seemed to not be a word that could fully capture this feeling of deep connection. And then the other day I found it: peculiar. Peculiar in the sense that my connection to her seems a bit odd, maybe even a bit “off,” if you will. But also peculiar in the biblical sense, which comes from the Hebrew segullah: “One’s very own, exclusive, or special” .
In the Bible, God repeatedly describes the deep, exclusive connection he feels towards Israel: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth” . In this and other verses, the other words used to further describe His peculiar people are also interesting: royal, holy, chosen, special, treasured, pure, and Mine . For God, peculiarity is particular. Each individual is chosen and each individual is treasured; a connection to the divine is a markedly individual act.
This newfound understanding of peculiarity arose out of my recent reading of Louise Erdrich’s heart-wrenching novel LaRose, which follows two young families as they struggle to come to terms with horrible unfairness. While out on a hunting trip one afternoon, Landreaux Iron mistakenly shoots and kills Dusty Ravich, his neighbor’s young son. Tormented, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline agree to give up their own only son, LaRose, to the Ravich family, hoping that staying true to their Ojibwe heritage and tradition will bring much needed relief and healing. The young boy LaRose is absorbed into both families, being the single, fragile connection that keeps both from falling apart. Heaped in convoluted layers of tragedy, Erdrich grapples throughout the novel with questions our contemporary world still struggles to answer: when horrible tragedy strikes, “what should we do?” (3). How can such overwhelming heartbreak and uncountable miseries ever truly be accounted for? Restored? Made whole?
Perhaps, in such a fractured and broken world, so much wrong can never be made right. Not, at least, in the sense that everything will be magically restored to exactly as it was before. But love, and Erdrich suggests specifically divine love, can be the key to unlocking help and healing.
Erdrich encapsulates divine love in her novel as divine justice. This was off-putting to me at first. After all, when I think of divine love, mercy comes to mind and seems much more fitting than justice. Justice can be and often is seen as the antithesis of divine love, the inescapable execution of a law that is harsh and cold. Any human attempt to maintain “what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power” will never adequately address each grievance, can never truly restore what is lost, and shall never again make whole that which is broken . This is true for both the Irons and the Raviches: nothing can bring Dusty back, nor account for each moment that is spent and lost without him.
At least, not as long as we think of justice as some kind of strict, blind transactional fairness. We have drifted from the word’s etymological origins, the classical Latin iūstitia, meaning “fairness, equity…validity, adequacy” and the post-classical Latin “righteousness, divine justification, state of grace, law, precept” . Justice as a state of grace, or a limitless supply of divine love for each individual, is perhaps more feasible, more efficacious, and more restorative and healing than any human attempt to divine and exact punishment.
Erdrich presents such a justice—justice as love, justice as grace—in her novel as divine love, which is accessed via ancestral love. Landreaux makes a traditional prayer pipe and reflects on how “it was the blood of the ancestors through which Emmaline and his children existed in this precarious world” (256). It is a spiritual connection to those who have gone before that saves and restores.
LaRose builds this spiritual connection from the stories he is told by the local reservation elders. He learns “from the old people how to move between worlds seen and unseen” and becomes the linchpin for both families as he straddles the human and the divine (208). It is his deep, personal, peculiar connection to his ancestors—or, as he describes it, his “spirit helpers”—that enables him to bring any true feeling of justice to each member of both of his hurting families. He gives love as a gift “without any expectation of return,” which is a manifestation of how divine love “is self-renewing [and] the energy of life is unlimited, even if individuals themselves die, and even if you cannot get everything all at once, our world is abundant” . LaRose enacts justice for each family member as he mediates their connection to the ancestors, to the divine.
My connection to my great grandmother is also markedly individual, and just like LaRose, it has largely come through stories. I have spent years hearing about her life, watching others eyes fill with warmth as they remember her. When I hear her stories and when I read the words she chose to leave behind, I am filled with memories of sicknesses and sorrows, moving and missions and marriage, diaper changes and on-the-side janitorial jobs and paper runs and sharing treats with neighbors; a lifetime of “hilarious and sacred, dirty, magical stories” (87, emphasis added). Each is a treasure to me.
In times of sorrow, in times of distress, when the world is dark and the all of its wrongs feel that they will never be made right, we can remember that God asked us to call Him Father. Ancestral love is divine. It is your very own, exclusive, special connection—and how often, I wonder, do we have unseen but deeply felt spirit helpers operating in our own lives?
This excerpt from a poem by Tracy K. Smith gives us a glimpse of the beauty of ancestral connection:
The ancestors live upstairs in a room without chairs.
When I visit, they welcome me without words.
They crouch, encircling me. They are without edges.
Wordless, they fill me. Warmth without weight.
I ask for something. Without shame, I beg.
They owe me nothing. But they give. They give. 
This blog post was written by Kim Hansen, a BYU Humanities Center undergraduate fellow.
Erdrich, Louise. LaRose. Harper Collins Press, 2016.
 “peculiar” Bible Dictionary, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/peculiar?lang=eng.
 Deut 14:2, emphasis mine
 See Deut 7:6, Exo 19:5, Mal 3:17, Titus 2:14, and 1 Peter 2:9
 “justice, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, February 2023, www.oed.com/view/Entry/80957.
 Scwartz, Regina. Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, 2016, p.7.
 Smith, Tracy K. “Riot.” Such Color. Graywolf Press, 2021, p.190.