Author: Louise Erdrich
Release Date: October 2, 2012
Page Count: 336
Genre(s): Literary Fiction
Summary from Goodreads:
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.
While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.
To say The Round House is a book about a rape investigation would be unfair, though true. On a very superficial level, Louise Erdrich writes about the investigation and background revolving around Joe’s mother’s rape, but this is not really just some gloomy mystery novel. It is that, but this books is also an often hilarious coming of age story and a window into the rich heritage held by these characters. All at once, both Erdrich highlights sad realities of Native rape victims and portrays a preteen’s seemingly typical adolescence on a North Dakotan reservation. It’s a very masterfully written story, in my opinion.
Spanning the course of one fateful summer in 1988, this book is narrated by Joe Coutts many years after, as he looks back on when he was 13. The Round House opens with Joe and his father doing yardwork on an apparently ordinary day, which turns into a not-so-ordinary day when Joe’s mother arrives at home covered in blood and vomit. The rest of the book deals with the aftermath, how everyone (literally everyone) was affected by what happened to Joe’s mother.
Rape is a sticky subject that requires respect and concern. You can’t just write a rape into your book and putz around with the consequences, or brush of the severity of what you’ve just inflicted on your character. Louise Erdrich does not do that at all. She is mature in her handling of the subject, and she’s starkly honest. The Round House is absolutely excellent in the way it goes about dealing with rape and its aftermath. Joe’s mother is a very real character, and her actions are palpably genuine. Likewise, the way everyone else on the reservation behaves in regards to the attack is well-drawn. Erdrich didn’t just write this on a whim, and that’s exceedingly obvious.
Beyond rape, I think the author also touches upon the issue of law and justice when it comes to reservation lands. Who has jurisdiction? Who can be charged with a crime? etc. Joe’s father, who is a judge, has something of an Atticus Finch aura about him, and as both he and and Joe struggle to obtain vengeance for the wrong done upon their wife/mother, the reader gets a very real sense of how limited Indians are when it comes to dealing with crimes the involve white people or non-reservation lands. Their sense of impotency is frustrating for them, and also ultimately, for the reader as well.
However, The Round House is not always a sober, depressing read. Erdrich also highlights the richness of Joe’s heritage, the pains that come with growing up, and the simple, day-to-day conflicts of life, often in a way that’s hilarious and silly and touching. In many ways, Joe’s lighter moments are reminiscent of Sherman Alexie’s Junior, though perhaps Joe is a bit more of a cynical, serious figure.
At the same time, to say that The Round House is something of a mix between To Kill a Mockingbird and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is unfair, because Louise Erdrich offers her own voice and talents and sensibilities to the text. While reading this, I didn’t feel it was derivative of anything that had come before. This stands upon its own feet and provides a story worth reading and remembering, worth discussing and exploring. It’s not a fast-paced story, or entirely a pleasant story, but I’d say it’s not really meant to be. The things that happened in Joe’s life the summer of ’88 are true and valid, and The Round House is the kind of book that stands out and stays with readers. It’s not a happy novel, but I nevertheless believe it to be a necessary one.