When his mother, a tribal enrollment specialist living on a reservation in North Dakota, slips into an abyss of depression after being brutally attacked, 14-year-old Joe Coutz sets out with his three friends to find the person that destroyed his family.
Although its plot suffers from a schematic quality that inhibits Ms. Erdrich’s talent for elliptical storytelling, the novel showcases her extraordinary ability to delineate the ties of love, resentment, need, duty and sympathy that bind families together. “The Round House” — a National Book Award finalist in the fiction category — opens out to become a detective story and a coming-of-age story, a story about how Joe is initiated into the sadnesses and disillusionments of grown-up life and the somber realities of his people’s history.
The problem that Erdrich exposes is the uncertainty on reservation land as to what judicial entity oversees crimes involving the Ojibwe population in North Dakota. In the innocent and endearing Joe, she has created a character that faces the reality of reservation life with aplomb and eyes wide open. The biggest problem in his view is a question of justice. As we’ve come to expect from the author, the tale is based in truth and told in spectacular prose.
One quibble I would have with this book is that it lacked the sumptuous complexity of her earlier novels and is especially less intricate than the wonderfully multifaceted Plague of Doves, which was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. I missed the non-linear structure that I’ve come to expect from Erdrich. The linear structure she utilizes, telling the story from beginning to end with one narrator, let us get to know Joe very well, but there was no nuance. Hair-splitting for what was a very good book, I guess, and one that I would recommend.
"That we have a real grocery store on our reservation is no small thing. It used to be that, besides the commodity warehouse, food came from the tiny precursor store -- Puffy's Place. The old store sold mainly nonperishable items -- tea, flour, salt, peanut butter -- plus surplus garden vegetables or game meat. It sold beadwork, moccasins, tobacco, and gum. For real food our people had traveled off reservation twenty miles or more to put our money in the pockets of store clerks who watched us with suspicion and took our money with contempt. But with our own grocery now, run by our own tribal members and hiring our own people to bag and stock, we had something special. Even though the pop machine out front was banged in, the magic doors swished shut on slow grandmas, and children smudged the gumball machine until you couldn't see the colors of the candy, it was our very own grocery. Trucks came to it, like a regular store, stocked it, then drove away."
This passage so straightforwardly captures the contempt the residents of the reservation felt directed toward them when forced to shop off-reservation, and the power of something as simple as having their own grocery. It's also an example of Erdrich's magnificently simple and eloquent prose. "...the magic doors swished shut on slow grandmas..." -- I love that.
We do learn more about the details of the crime as we watch Joe grow up. While he is obsessed with finding some resolution for his mother's assault, he is also a thirteen-year-old boy and Erdrich captures that with finesse and compassion. This is a novel about the terrible power of revenge, both for healing and for devastation, but it is also just a story of human love.
This is a remarkable novel, absolutely recommended.
Joe's got a good life. His father is a judge and his mother works for the BIA, untangling webs of kinship to determine who has claim to Chippewa heritage. She comes home one Sunday afternoon badly hurt and life in Joe's house changes utterly. Joe has a large extended family that rally around and his group of Star Trek obsessed friends do likewise, but that can't assuage his need to see justice done. Erdrich paints an intricate picture of Native American life, from the stories his old grandfather tells and the preparations around religious rites and cultural celebrations, to the role of the Catholic church and the complicated lines of kinship that make everybody tied to each other. Erdrich also writes with both humor and empathy for her characters, from the ex-stripper who runs the local gas station and convenience store, to the priest who is also a Vietnam vet, to Cappy, Joe's best friend, who falls in love that summer.
The crime at the heart of the novel is overly intricate, but brings to light the difficulties of jurisdiction and the laws that have stripped the reservations of legal power. Despite the issues that Erdrich explores and clearly cares deeply about, the book never feels preachy or as though it were written to make a point. Mainly, this is due to the narrator and protagonist. Joe's thirteen. He's obsessed with sex and getting enough to eat and the time he spends with his friends is the most enjoyable part of this book about a boy suddenly having to confront the worst aspects of adulthood.
"I looked at my parents and understood exactly what had happened. My father had come in -- surely Mom had heard the car, and hadn't Pearl barked? His footsteps, too, were heavy. He always made noise and was as I have mentioned a somewhat clumsy man. I'd noticed that in the last week he'd also shouted something silly when returning, like, I'm home! But maybe he'd forgotten. Maybe he'd been too quiet this time. Maybe he'd gone into the kitchen, just as he always used to, and then he'd put his arms around my mother as she stood with her back turned. In our old life, she would have kept working at the stove or sink while he peered over her shoulder and talked to her. They'd stand there together in a little tableau of homecoming. Eventually, he'd call me in to help him set the table. He'd change his clothes quickly while she and I put the finishing touches on the meal, and then we would sit down together. We were not churchgoers. This was our ritual. Our breaking bread, our communion. And it all began with that trusting moment where my father walked up behind my mother and she smiled at his approach without turning. But now they stood staring at each other helplessly over the broken dish."
The narrator, Joe, describes in these two paragraphs of Louise Erdrich's National Book Award-winning novel, The Round House, how his family has been torn apart in the aftermath of his mother's rape. Erdrich uses this story of Geraldine Coutt's rape, and how her husband, Bazil, a tribal judge, is helpless as a man and as a tribal judge, to chronicle a family's hurt, a young man's growing up and how ineffectual the law is.
Joe is a teenager in the story, although he tells it from the vantage of an adult looking back. Erdrich thus avoids the young or possibly naive narrator who doesn't know the significance of what he is telling the reader.
The law makes it nearly impossible to prosecute his mother's rapist, even if the attacker is found. She's not certain where the actual rape occurred, if it was on the reservation or not. That means three jurisdictions investigate. Without the Violence Against Women Act, she would have had even less recourse against her attacker.
Joe and his best friends, giddy on Star Trek: The Next Generation and comic books, do a bit of investigating on their own. They do find out some information about the case, but in a way the legal case is the least important part of the story. Geraldine's withdrawal into herself, Bazil's attempts to care for her and Joe's coming-of-age as he discovers things about his parents, his neighbors and himself are more important than legal ramifications.
The Round House is where Geraldine was taken and the place she escaped from. It is a holy place that has now been defiled. The boys go to the Round House and discover possible clues. But they also swim, ride their bikes, tease each other, drink a couple of beers and gorge themselves on the cooking of a granny. Their days are brought to vibrant life, and contrast starkly with the way Joe's mother has gone upstairs to her room and shut herself in.
Erdrich's other characters also spring to life: war-wounded Father Travis; Joe's father the judge, who talked about the weather with a woman who may or may not know something about the attack on his mother; the grannies teasing the teenage boys about manly things. Such life in these things. They not only show the stark contrast at the scope of the tragedy of his mother's rape, they also simply celebrate life that is simply lived.
There are other contrasts in the way other characters treat family and loved ones. Linda was rejected by her mother at birth and adopted by an Indian family. But when her brother Linden needed her later, they sought her out. What she decided at the time and what she does in the novel may be surprising. And then there's Whitey, who owns the local gas station, and his white wife, Sonja, the former exotic dancer. She's motherly and selfish at the same time.
Erdrich has other characters who have appeared in her earlier novels make appearances or are referred to. Father Damien from the wonderful novel, Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, is mentioned in passing. And, of course, there is Mooshum, who her readers have seen at most stages of his life. He figures he's about 112 here. Joe himself is the grandson of the judge in The Plague of Doves.
Mooshum is a bridge between the past and present in this novel. Erdrich uses the device of having him talk in his sleep while Joe listens. Mooshum's stories seem like folk tales, legends, but they have a point in Joe's growing up and the acts he takes over the course of the summer following his mother's rape. Mooshum tells about Nanapush, who saw how to make the Round House by listening to an old female buffalo which he has killed and has burrowed into her carcass to survive a storm.
That Joe's mother, and another woman, were taken to the Round House after being raped, and that the site where their attacker tried to kill them, is this place to be respected, adds to their defilement. It is not just that they were attacked. It is not just that they were nearly murdered. The entire tribe's place of honor has been sullied.
The fact that the laws that have come to govern the tribe cannot protect the women is not glossed over. It is a shameful fact. News reports during the last Congress, when the Violence Against Women Act was held up, noted that 34 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women are raped.
There comes a point in the long summer of his mother shutting herself away that his father brings out all the silverware in the kitchen and aligns them on the table in a pattern only he can see, built around a moldy casserole that neighbors brought after the attack and which had been forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. The judge is building bridges between Johnston v. McIntosh, the 1823 Supreme Court case that codified the European/white land grab, and the day when tribes are allowed
"the right to prosecute criminals of all races on all lands within our original boundaries". Every small case the judge decides builds toward the day.
The novel concerns itself with both this right to be a sovereign people with all rights that come with existence, especially rights within one's property, and with the ways in which women are disrespected both by law (with the treatment of rape victims and the limits of prosecution against rapists in both white and Indian jurisdiction) and by men (the way Joe considers former stripper Sonja who helps him after he makes an important find). There is much balance in the novel, such as the wealth of healthy sex jokes amongst the grown-ups as counterpoint to both the trauma of Joe's mother's rape and the innocence of the boys.
Mostly, the novel is about love. The love that Joe's parents, Bazil and Geraldine, have for each other and for their son, and he for them. The love that Whitey and Sonja have. The love that Joe's friend Cappy experiences for the first time with the beautiful Zelia, who comes to the reservation from Helena on a mission to convert them all back to Catholicism. The love boys have for each other when they are as close as brothers and stand with each other whenever one is hurting. The love that knows when it is broken.
Thirteen year old Joe has to come to terms with his mother's brutal rape on the reservation they call home. A boy who is suddenly thrust into the world of men must navigate the complicated realm of justice, retribution, and racial discrimination with little adult guidance, while his trio of rag tag friends become one of the few sources of solace and comfort. Alone he will bear upon his growing shoulders the sins of a community without the understanding nor the wisdom to comprehend the repercussions of his actions.
I appreciated Erdrich's ability to paint the horrible circumstances around the crime that is central to the story without being too graphic, but still being able to convey the gravity of the situation. She draws us into Joe's mind, his confusion, his anger, his frustration, without holding back while being completely authentic at the same time, letting his character shine for itself. The story is unapologetic, unassuming, and a wonderful example of how to tell the story from a young person's perspective without making it juvenile or unbelievable. A worthwhile and immersive narrative. Recommended.
Women don't realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.
And so, you see, her absence stopped time.
The characters make up the heart and soul of The Round House. Joe is such a teenage boy – constantly hungry, eager for independence, and yet still desiring the comforts and solace found at home with his loving parents. When that comfort is brutally ripped away from the entire Coutts family, Joe is left holding the pieces, and a reader is swept up in his despair, confusion, anger, and desperation. Cappy, Zack, and Angus make for a great source of refuge in Joe’s time of need, but they also provide some much-needed comic relief as they continue to fight their own fights to survive in this harsh reservation life. Ms. Erdrich’s captures the nuances of teenage boys perfectly, with their growing obsession with girls and girl parts, their particular brand of joking, the language used to denote an unwavering friendship, and most importantly, their fragility as well as their fierce protection of any mother figure. It is accurate enough to create a reader’s own well of protectionism towards this group of gangly young men. The rest of the cast draws an equally fervid emotional response within a reader. Geraldine and Bazil’s struggles to recover from her traumatic attack are just the type of the iceberg. The family dynamic on the reservation is a marvel and exquisitely portrayed by Ms. Erdrich.
The Round House is not a novel to rush but to be savored. In fact, it is a story that builds methodically, taking time to set the stage and build the appropriate mood. Once a reader gets into the heart of the story however, it is difficult to stop reading. Ms. Erdrich’s prose is poetic and yet concise with an exacting attention to detail that makes it easy for a reader to paint mental images of the unfolding scenes and enhance the entire reading experience.
After finishing the novel, there is no doubt how or why Ms. Erdrich won the National Book Award for The Round House. It is a stunning piece of fiction that not only explores human nature but shines a spotlight on the harsh realities of reservation law and the fragile détente that still exists between Native Americans and the conquering Anglos. It is this latter element which surprises readers the most, or those who may not be familiar with current reservation laws and how archaic they truly are. The inexplicable lack of justice caused through loopholes within the judicial system are disturbing in their blatant disregard for human rights and adds much of the tension throughout the novel. Joe, in spite of his teenage churlishness, is just as much of a victim as his mother, and the novel’s disturbing ending will rend heartstrings more than Geraldine’s attack did. The Round House is an excellent story, but more importantly, it forces readers to confront the injustices that the US policies towards/against Native Americans continue to create. In this season of taking stock of one’s blessings and helping others less fortunate, what could be better than that?
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Danielle Plafsky from HarperCollins for my review copy!
Joe, the narrator, is a young adolescent at the time the crime occurs. He tells of how the crime shatters his sense of safety, and how, with the help of his friends, especially Cappy, he tries to discover the perpetrator of this crime in hopes of putting his family back together again.
But seeking justice is never simple. Land ownership is an issue, jurisdiction is an issue, and in the small world of the reservation and North Dakota old grudges are an issue. When Joe’s mother Geraldine finally talks about what happened, we discover that the roots of this crime run deep indeed. Joe and his father are angry. Geraldine is frightened and angry. And healing and justice are not the same thing.
I especially liked the slow pace of this story, as we become acquainted with Joe, his father, his friends and the network of family and relationships Joe is sustained by. I also liked the way in which Mooshum & his stories give Joe insight into how to proceed, as well as filling in the history of the round house and providing some much needed laughs.
This is a richly textured novel, and well worth the read.
The story is about a man named Joe looking back on his boyhood in 1988, beginning with the extremely violent rape of his mother, her almost complete withdrawal from life following it, and his attempts with his father, a tribal judge, to bring about justice. Over the course of the story Joe becomes disillusioned with the smallness of the tribal law his father is limited to judging, and then this smallness takes over and shapes the outcome and response to his mother's rape. It does not have the feel of a mystery or a thriller and the culprit is revealed about halfway through the book, but it does depict Joe's bonding with his friends as they somewhat comically and ineffectually work together to track down the perpetrator of the crime.
All of this said, I'm not sure where my mixed feelings come from, it is just that as much as I enjoyed and appreciated it, I didn't feel myself rushing to go back and read previous Louise Erdrich novels. But I wouldn't rule it out either.
Erdrich's setting and characterization are rich, realistic and unsentimental. The U.S. government's oppression of Native Americans is integral to the story: I learned things from this book but never felt lectured to. I was mostly really drawn in by the story, my attention only occasionally wandering when extended folk tales entered the narrative, folk tales being Not My Thing.
The tale is narrated by Joe, the 13 year old son of Geraldine and Bazil Coutts. They all live on the reservation in North Dakota and one day Geraldine is brutally attacked; she is beaten, raped and almost set afire. She escapes but the trauma stays with her and causes her to withdraw into herself. Bazil is a tribal judge and suspects that she knows more than she is telling but she mostly lies in bed and ignores the world. Bazil begins to investigate the attack and he brings Joe into the investigation despite his age. He soon realizes how foolish this is when Joe and his friends start stalking a possible suspect.
Woven into the story of Geraldine, her attack and the legal complications of the location of the attack (tribal land, privately owned land, US Government land) and the race of the attacker all play into how the case will be prosecuted. Even IF it will be prosecuted. The injustices of the legal system are horrifying.
The part of the book dealing with these issues was very compelling. It was heartbreaking, it was hard to read at times and it makes the reader angry at the system of (in)justice in place between the US government and the tribal government. The way it slowly goes about releasing information about wrongs done long ago that come to play in the present really made for great storytelling. Where the book lost me was when it devolved into long and extended forays into almost vulgar depictions of the sexual escapades of the older generation of the extended family of young Joe. Why was it necessary to the story? I don't understand how it advanced the story or enhanced the story.
Ms. Erdrich has a way with words - there is no denying that but it seems that this was two books mashed into one to the detriment of both. I also don't understand the lack of quotation marks - this is a new conceit I have seen in several novels this year and it confounds me. What is wrong with quotation marks?
Overall I did enjoy this book. It was thought provoking and it riled my emotions - for the good and the bad. That is what a reader wants from a book and this reader got a lot of riling from The Round House. It's one I'll keep to read again. I might get some insight on a second read through that I missed the first time around. There is a LOT going on and it does deserve attention.
The central story is the investigation of the rape, and the difficulties surrounding the prosecution. But the narrative goes off on many tangents and circles back around. It ends up painting a very rich picture of the Indian reservation community and culture, while telling a story with unforeseen twists.
I listened to this on audio. The narrator's Native American cadence added to the authenticity, but be warned that is slow. Impatient readers/listeners may prefer the print version.
I had a sense that The Round House was going to be such a book from its description:
One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.
If that doesn't intrigue you, the first lines surely will:
"Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves, Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. They had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry them loose." (pg.1)
Foreshadowing and symbolism much? Yes and yes, but it all works beautifully in the hands of Louise Erdrich in The Round House, which has just been named the National Book Award winner for 2012.
Your heart immediately breaks for Joe, the narrator of the story and who is only 13 when his mother is attacked and raped on an Indian reservation in 1988. Although we learn in the early pages of the story that Joe is narrating as an adult, we easily forget this as we get absorbed into the story. Erdrich makes him such a tender character. Indeed, that's one of the most incredible strengths of The Round House.
It's one thing for a writer to make a reader feel sympathetic for a character but it is quite another to sustain that emotion at such a high intensity for 300 pages, as Erdrich expertly does. I can't overemphasize how tremendously Erdrich does this; the weight and emotion of this heinous crime and its aftermath is so heavy on the page, it is absolutely palpable. To me, this was perhaps the best quality of the book.
Early on in the plot, we realize (as does Joe) that justice will not be swift - if it is even served at all. That's when Joe, along with his three best friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack, decides to take matters into his own hands. They get in over their head, none moreso than Joe, whose father is a judge. The consequences become life-changing.
No modern day writer captures the modern Native American Indian experience as well as Erdrich, and in each one of her books, the reader learns something new about the history and culture of this people. In The Round House, it is the light that she shines on the
"tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations." A 2009 Amnesty International report found that "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted." (Afterward, pg. 319)
I truly had no idea.
I'm an admirer of Louise Erdrich's writing and was thrilled to have been offered a copy of The Round House for review via the publisher from TLC Book Tours in exchange only for my honest review. As I mentioned, The Round House recently won the National Book Award, an honor for which it is well deserved.
There is no violent crime that has but one victim. In this brilliant novel, the raped mother, her family, her son's friends, the inhabitants of the reservation, white people who are related and unrelated, religious groups, law enforcement, and the most innocent are victims. Erdrich weaves together each of those aspects of civilization into a beautiful and tragic revelation of how fragile is that concept when brutally attacked.
But amidst the tragedy of a disintegrating family and the dysfunctional society incapable of securing solace for any of them, there are luminous moments as when Mooshum, Joe's grandfather, is "sleeptelling" his wounded grandson Native American legends of their Chippewa people as Joe lies on his cot, sharing the old man's room, bathed in moonlight, listening to his unconscious ancestor evoke the spirit world.
There may be no funnier scene in American literature -- at least not since Tom Sawyer -- than when Joe and his friends are caught spying on the fearsomely scarred and dangerously mysterious new Catholic warrior-priest who holds them captive (or enthralled) as he tells them his life story. It's enough to make an Indian boy want to become Catholic.
Erdrich has written a simple on the surface novel that is profound, wide ranging, rich, and wise.
My opinion that The Master Butcher's Singing Club is Erdrich's masterpiece, may have to be revised.
With this National Book Award-winning story, Louise Erdrich successfully juggles several different themes: a coming-of-age tale, a crime-and-revenge story, a legal thriller, and a treatise on gender and racial inequality. In fact, in the Afterword, the author makes her ostensible mission clear with some startling statistics about the incidence of sexual assault on the reservation and the myriad historical and legal obstacles that prevent the successful prosecution of those cases. To be sure, though, The Round House rises far above the level of a simple harangue about social injustice. Indeed, Erdrich’s flowing prose is at once poignant, earthy, and occasional humorous; with it, she paints a compelling and deeply moving portrait of a disenfranchised culture and one young man’s place in it. While some aspects of the book felt forced (e.g., the heavy-handed use of foreshadowing, the morally questionable resolution), this was nonetheless an engaging and satisfying story that was a pleasure to read.
It sounds simple, but The Round House is the work of a master-storyteller, each detail bringing daily life on the reservation into focus. Joe, the narrator, is a funny, honest companion through the often-horrifying story, and through his eyes we see all the best of late-boyhood friendships in his adventures with Cappy, Zack, and Angus, as well as the worst in men.
The raw anger and frustration that this book made me feel was balanced by admiration for Ms. Erdrich’s stunning language and deft way of shaping her characters. One of my favorite passages is Joe’s relation of the boys’ love for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The boys all want to be Worf, but admire Data immensely. (Also, the chapter names are often taken from the names of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes.)
I’m thrilled that I’ve finally had the chance to recommend it.
An easy story that is well written and detailed. Anyone interested in a first-hand, fictional, vintage look at Native American reservation life might find this story interesting.
My " in a nutshell" summary...
A terrible terrible crime occurs...and the result is what you would expect...the lives of everyone involved are forever changed.
My thoughts after reading this book...
For me...my own personal reading experience with this book was a gripping and serious one. It takes place on a reservation. A horrible crime is committed against Joe's mother Geraldine. She turns inward...she is not the mother and wife she was before this atrocity occurred. Joe is 13. It is the beginning of summer and he finds himself alone. His father is a judge but everything in the lives of this family just stops. Geraldine stays in her room, his father sleeps alone and the life Joe knew is gone. He has time to think and his thoughts turn to finding out what happened to his mother. Joe needs to find out who did this to his mother in the worst way.
Ok...that is sort of the point of the story but the beauty of the book is in following the lives of everyone else involved in this drama. Life on the reservation is the same yet different. Stories abound, lives are intertwined and Joe is always listening and watching and reaching for clues...for answers that are sometimes within his grasp...sometimes completely out of his hands.
The story has an amazing ending...one that I thought might happen but was still totally surprised by.
What I loved about this book...
This author is just a true storyteller. I was lost in her words and stories about life on this reservation. At times I was just praying for Joe and his dad and mom. His dad tried so hard to try to maintain his family. His mom was so sorrowful in her misery. Her life stopped the moment this act occurred. Joe's summer...was one sort of difficult event after another.
What I did not love...
Hmmm...the perpetrator...it was sad to see such fierce evil.
I found this to be a book that begins strong and stayed strong all the way until the end. It is a mystery unravelling but it is so much more. Be prepared for lots of characters and stories that sort of both shock and captivate.
Sent from my iPad2 by Patty!!!
The central, recurring theme in The Round House is that of overlapping worlds. I loved the writing immediately. In this personal way, Erdrich explores several other blurred boundaries, such as that between the Indian world and the white world, the way both Christian and native beliefs have personal meaning, the difficult crossing between childhood and the adult world, and the conflict between personal justice and the importance of rational, impartial law. I loved the way she brought these separate threads together in the raw, but beautifully symbolic final chapters.
My favorite lines from the book: “In all those miles, in all those hours, in all that air rushing by and sky coming at us, blending into the next horizon, the one after that, in all that time there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember by mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure. Nobody shed tears and there was no anger. My mother or my father drove, gripping the wheel with neutral concentration. I don’t remember that they even looked at me or I at them after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old. I do remember, though, the familiar sight of the roadside café just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always when my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.”
The book’s narrator is Joe Coutts, a thirteen-year-old Ojibwe boy who lives on a North Dakota reservation with his mother and father. Bazil, the boy’s father, is a respected tribal judge with jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the tribe within the boundaries of the reservation. His mother, Geraldine, is a reservation researcher who verifies the assertions of applicants claiming membership in the tribe.
Joe, very much a product of his bookish parents, is an avid reader known to delve into his father’s law books on occasion. He very much admires his parents and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps someday. But Joe’s world is shattered one Sunday afternoon in 1988 when his mother comes home bleeding and traumatized by the violent attack she has suffered. As it turns out, Geraldine’s physical injuries will heal quicker than her emotional ones. As the weeks go by, she refuses to eat, bathe, or even leave her bedroom.
Because Geraldine refuses to identify her assailant, or even to speak of the attack, Joe and his father decide to investigate the crime themselves. But, while Bazil often bounces ideas and random theories off his son, he has no idea that Joe is conducting a dangerous investigation all his own – one that could easily ruin Joe’s future or even cost him his life.
At the heart of The Round House are the convoluted jurisdictional issues pertaining to crimes involving Native Americans. Depending on where a crime takes place, its investigation is the responsibility of either Federal, State, or Tribal Police departments – but only of one of them. For that reason, the inability to determine the precise location of a crime, which is exactly the situation in Geraldine’s case, is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a crime victim. That a white man, even for crimes obviously committed within the boundaries of the reservation, cannot, by law, be investigated by the Tribal Police or prosecuted in Bazil’s courtroom, provides the final insult.
Because Joe is telling his story in hindsight, from the viewpoint of the adult he has become, he is able to explore the more subtle issues that never crossed his mind in 1988. Does the unchecked threat of pure evilness justify retaliatory violence? Are there circumstances under which it becomes one’s personal responsibility to disobey the law? When does the real world trump the ideal world? Erdrich uses Ojibwe legend and tradition to make a strong case that the old ways are still sometimes the best ways.
The Round House is a grim reminder that Native Americans still suffer many of the same indignities they were first subjected to more than a century ago.
Rated at: 5.0