Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Main character Joe is 13 years old the summer that his life changes forever. Joe is the devoted, mostly well-behaved son of two loving parents, growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His father is a judge in the tribal legal system; his mother works in the all-important tribal registry office, handling the complex web of rights and obligations that are tied into a person’s genealogy and ancestry.
At the start of that fateful summer in 1988, Joe’s mother is brutally attacked and raped. Joe’s secure home and safe world is turned upside down, as the hunt for the rapist and the quest for justice consume the family. Ultimately, however, it is the tangled mess of legalities stemming from early tribal treaties and the creation of the reservations that determines the outcome of the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator. Different laws apply to different jurisdictions, and the case ends up resting on the question of where the attack took place. Was it reservation land? State land? Federal land? Unless the jurisdiction can be determined, there can be no legal process, and so even though the identity and whereabouts of the rapist are pretty quickly determined, it is not at all clear that the man can or will be tried for the crime.
Those are the bare bones of the plot. At a deeper level, The Round House is a meditation on so much more. Some of the most compelling aspects of this book include:
– The sense of family and community present among the people living on the reservation. Joe’s immediate family is small, but his extended family is huge. Everyone is a cousin or an in-law; everyone plays a role in the lives of others. The support and connection is palpable. There is no hiding here — wherever Joe goes, he is known and welcome.
– The depth of the friendships among the boys in this story. Joe’s friends are his brothers. They have adventures, they get up to mischief together — but they have each others’ backs and their bond is one of love and dedication. The relationships among these boys are quite lovely to read about.
– The outrage over the crime that was committed. I think we are all too used to the awful stigma that still attaches itself to rape survivors in our society, but that sense of shame is completely absent here. Joe’s mother suffers deeply, but her suffering is from fear of her attacker and what he may yet do, to her and to others. What is clear here is that Geraldine was the victim of a violent crime, and she is supported by her community without question and without stinting. The house overflows with casseroles; Joe is looked after by not just his aunt and uncle but by everyone. No one hesitates to ask Joe how his mother is or to offers words of kindness. It’s a refreshing attitude that condemns the attacker without in any way blaming or belittling the woman who was attacked.
– The linking of traditional beliefs to the modern occurences. The elders in the family are respected and honored. Joe’s centenarian grandfather tells tales of buffalo women and evil spirits, but these are not just ancient myths — various facets of the stories come into play in the search for justice for Geraldine.
– The reminder that what may seem to many as an unfortunate chapter in US history is still having an impact on real people’s lives to this day. The daily frustrations of living with the outcomes of the tribal treaties is a very real part of the characters’ experiences. An incredibly powerful scene takes place about 2/3 of the way into the book, as Joe asks his father why he bothers — why does he continue trying cases in the tribal courts when nothing seems to make a difference? In response, Joe’s father pulls an old, moldy casserole from the back of the fridge where it had been forgotten, dumps it onto the table, and then begins to pile utensils and kitchen implements on top of it:
That’s it, he said.
I must have looked scared. I was scared. His behavior was that of a madman.
That’s what, Dad? I carefully said. The way you’d address a person in delirium.
He rubbed his sparse gray whiskers.
That’s Indian Law.
I nodded and looked at the edifice of knives and silverware on top of the sagging casserole.
He pointed to the bottom of the composition and lifted his eyebrows at me.
Uh, rotten decisions?
Joe’s father goes on to explain how he and his fellow judges, in case after case, are attempting to overcome the poor foundations of their legal system by creating strong decisions on top of these, hoping to some day create a stronger framework for laws that support their people’s lives. It’s a lovely scene, showing in few words both the depths of the problems facing the tribe and the strength of the connection between Joe and his father.
The plot of The Round House swirls around the traumatic events of that particular summer, but in many ways the story is a coming-of-age tale with the universal characteristics of a boy’s emergence into manhood. Through the attack and its aftermath, Joe for the first time sees his parents as vulnerable. He starts to realize that they have inner lives, fears and hopes, apart from him, and that they can’t always protect themselves or him from the harsher realities of life. Joe and his close friends are on the cusp of their teen years, developing sexually, exploring the boundaries of freedom, reveling in their small conquests and steps toward independence. Much of the climax of the story has to do with Joe, with the assistance of his friends, taking affirmative steps on his own toward what he feels must be done. Joe has gone from the protected child of the family to a young man who wants to be the protector, and while he may stumble along the way, it is this significant summer that propels him forward into the kind of man he will grow up to be.
It’s easy to see why The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. This beautifully written, powerful story of family and friendship, crime and justice, tradition and history is filled with memorable, well-drawn characters, dramatic plotting, and moral conundrums. There’s a lot to think over, and I’m still mulling through the events and implications of the various plot turns.
The Round House is not light reading, but it’s certainly worthwhile. I recommend it highly, and look forward to exploring more of Louise Erdrich’s work.