The Round House – Louise Erdrich
By – Sheri de Grom
I started reading Erdrich novels with Love Medicine and The Beet Queen in the 1980s and have been a loyal reader ever since. In The Round House she writes about the social and spiritual lives of Native Americans, a common subject throughout the works of Ms. Erdrich’s.
In my opinion, there isn’t another contemporary American writer who so accurately portrays life on a reservation. Ms. Erdrich creates real characters who not only live on the reservation but act in believable ways. Her details are as important as any other element and her descriptions add depth to the stories she tells.
While pursuing post-graduate studies in the field of Native American Sociology in preparation for a stint involving contracts with the most successful tribal governments in Alaska and exporting those contracts to the lower forty-eight states, I had occasion to read numerous fiction and non-fiction authors. Ms. Erdrich is spot-on in describing traditions, entwinement of cultures, and government interference with tribal belief systems that have not worked for decades.
The Round House brings to life Joe, a thirteen-year old Ojibwe boy on a reservation in North Dakota in 1988.
In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Erdrich stated, “I wanted to make it a book with suspense so I kept answering questions all through the book. There’s always something unanswered.”
The premise of the novel is based on a tragic injustice wherein tribal governments could not prosecute non-Indians who committed crimes on reservations. In the novel’s afterward, she writes about the appalling numbers of non-Indian men who rape Indian women on tribal lands and escape prosecution because of jurisdictional issues.”
The early pages of The Round House reveal that Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is brutally raped by a white man in a savage act of vengeance. Traumatized, Geraldine withdraws into silence, leaving her husband—a tribal—judge, with a kind of roiling, helpless grief and anger. Joe meanwhile, is left with the need to resolve profound questions about justice, revenge and the inexplicable nature of evil.
. . . Pg 12[Three men came through the emergency ward doors and stood quietly in the hall. There was a state trooper, an officer local to the town of Hoopdance, and Vince Madwesin, from the tribal police. My father had insisted that they each take a statement from my mother because it wasn’t clear where the crime had been committed—on state or tribal land—or who had committed it—an Indian or a non-Indian.]
Imagine if you will the horror of going through an interrogation in the emergency room after being raped—because an interrogation is exactly what it feels like. Then, stop and think what it might feel like for a native American woman to go through the same experience a total of three times. How can this be justice?
Reading The Round House is more than extracting information or following the characters to the end of the story. At a point, this book becomes a thriller, but it’s literary, not just a whodunit. Words with muscle combine with psychological insight and crafty plotting. The reader knows the lives of the characters and why events occur the way they do. The journey unfolds in an insightful way.
Joe’s entire world changes as a result of the rape. When his mother comes home from the hospital, she no longer wants to be at the center of the family. She retreats to her bedroom and stays there day and night. Gone is the laughter, the delicious meals, the clean clothes and house. There’s no longer food in the refrigerator. Joe’s father doesn’t shop; he’s the tribal chief and he’s depressed. The world stops.
The Round House also has a touch of humor. It’s especially evident when Joe and his friends are with their elders. There’s also the normal amount of horse-play between Joe and his three friends.
Joe’s determined to find the person responsible for his mother’s condition. He takes it upon himself to go through his father’s old case files. Had his father sent someone to prison who wanted revenge? Had he charged someone with a crime they felt was unjust?
. . . Pg 92 [If I could tan your hide, he said, I would do that. But it just . . . I could never do you harm. Also, I am pretty certain that if I did tan your hide the hiding wouldn’t work. In fact, it might set your mind against me. It might cause you to do things secretly. So I am going to have to appeal to you, Joe. I am going to have to ask you to stop. No more hunting down the attacker. No more clue gathering. I realize it is my fault because I sat you down to read through the cases I pulled. But I was wrong to draw you in. You’re too damn inquisitive, Joe. You’ve surprised the hell out of me. I’m afraid. You could get yourself . . . if anything happened to you . . .
Nothing’s going to happen to me!
I had expected my father to be proud. To give me one of his low whistles of surprise. I’d expected that he would help me plan what to do next. How to set the trap. How to catch the priest. Instead, I was getting a lecture. I sat back in my chair and kicked at the gas can.] . . .
The Round House is an excellent choice for a book group. There are endless choices for discussion: family dynamics, the influence of crime on the community and the family, Native American culture, justice, the emotional relationship of a thirteen-year old boy with his mother, and the list goes on.
I unconditionally recommend The Round House for anyone looking for a read that’s not only well-written but portrays the accuracy of life on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in 1988. You won’t read it just for the history. And while it’s not true crime, it reads as though it could be. You cannot go wrong with The Round House.