The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper; 336 pages; $26.99).
Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Round House is quite a departure from her previous novels. Typically, Erdrich writes from multiple perspectives, with each narrative contributing a little window into a larger world. She switches gears with The Round House, which was recently nominated for a National Book Award in fiction. Joe Coutts, her primary narrator and an Ojibwe Indian, recalls a horrific crime that occurred when he was thirteen. A cacophony of voices is unnecessary in The Round House; Joe drives Erdrich’s story, and his voice speaks volumes.
Like Erdrich’s previous works, The Round House is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation. Erdrich is part Chippewa, and problems facing Native American communities mean a great deal to her, as they should to us all. In The Round House, she once again tackles difficult subjects, such as violence against women, crime, and, most glaringly, the injustice of the law. Unlike her other books, though, The Round House features an unforgettable young boy on the cusp of adulthood, who transfixes us with his strong, intimate narrative.
Erdrich sets her story in the spring of 1988. Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is badly beaten and raped; her body reeks of gasoline. To the consternation of Joe and his father, Bazil, a judge, Geraldine is reluctant to tell what happened or even where the crime occurred. Father and son are further dismayed when Geraldine retreats from them and spends her days in bed, eating little and saying nothing. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she is a shell of her former self.
Bazil begins investigating the rape and enlists Joe’s aid. The boy is more than eager to help his father find the culprit. Bazil knows that he shouldn’t put so much pressure on a boy of 13; he knows he has told Joe too much. It is too late, however. Joe is already fixated.
“I wanna get him,” Joe tells his friends: Cappy, Angus, and Zack. Joe wants to avenge his mother and “watch him burn.” His love for her is so bright and fierce that he seeks to kill his mother’s rapist. “Mom, listen,” he tells her. “I’m going to find him and I’m going to burn him. I’m going to kill him for you.”
You’d think Joe would not have to make this promise. You’d think the police would investigate, find the accused, and prosecute him. It’s not that simple on an Indian reservation, where jurisdiction is key.
Geradline was raped in the round house, a sacred space to the Ojibwe Indians, where they practiced religious ceremonies. And there lies the conundrum. An Indian did not commit the crime; a white man is to blame, a man who loathes Indians. A crime was committed, but “on what land? Was it tribal land? Fee land? White property? State? We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply.”
It seems the rapist violated Geraldine in this sacred space deliberately. He knew what he was doing and where he was doing it. In all likelihood, he will not be charged with anything.
Joe cannot let that happen and will use any means necessary to get his revenge. He will enlist his friends; he will sift through his father’s old case files; he will seek advice from his grandfather; he will garner information from the twin sister of the accused. If the law is unjust, then Joe will seek his own vigilante justice.
The Round House is part coming-of-age story and part crime novel. Erdrich uses humor and pop culture to show how Joe and his friends are obsessed with Star Wars, Star Trek, and girls. The boys are so close that they would do anything for each other. Their closeness reflects the tight-knit community they call home, where everybody knows everybody and where everyone looks out for everyone else. Whatever happens, they will insulate the boys from reprisal. In a sense, when Geraldine is raped and beaten, the whole town is violated.
Since Joe looks back on these events from an adult perspective, he is able to view the crime from two perspectives simultaneously: child and adult. Joe puts an adult spin on things whenever he can, yet Erdrich manages to capture how the crime shattered his innocence. The offense against Geraldine turns Joe into a man. The crime affected Joe so much that he went on to study law; eventually, Joe becomes a lawyer. He can tell the story then from a son’s eye, yet with a lawyer’s keen focus.
The Round House illustrates how a senseless crime can forever change a town, a community, a family, and a young man. Lives are overturned, and relationships are altered. Yet a boy discovers the power of friendship and understands the meaning of giving one’s word. That same youth becomes a man in this tale and finds his life’s calling: to seek justice even in the unlikeliest of places. Erdrich instinctively knows when it takes a chorus to tell a story and when only one voice is needed.