The Round House (Harper, 2012—winner of the National Book Award), and its New York Times bestseller success, proves that writing remains a mighty instrument, bringing to light and addressing overlooked issues that crave attention.
I was shocked, engrossed, dismayed, angered, indignant and resolutely affected by the story, built on the too-true reality of a rape of a Native American woman and the morass of laws that made it impossible to not only prosecute the offender but convict him.
The story grabs you by the solar plexus of compassion by page five. How could Geraldine learn to survive and thrive as a mother, wife, and contributing member of her tribe, knowing that her violator willfully and maliciously used the rules against her? It was enough to drive her husband, a tribal court judge, and her 13-year son Joe crazed with anger.
The Round House, told from Joe’s point of view, is a coming of age story as Joe’s mother sinks into depression and his father scrabbles to contend with her sadness and slow recovery, while finding a way to navigate the laws in order to get her justice.
Joe is left more and more on his own, falling back on his extended family which includes his Aunt Clemence and Uncle Edward, his Uncle Whitey and Aunt Sonja and his over-eighty grandfather Mooshum. Joe also hangs out with his particular circle of three friends, getting up to adolescent mischief and sleuthing the case. He also eats a lot of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.
But at heart of The Round House is a mystery. Who was the rapist? How did he come by his particular knowledge of the laws? What was his motivation? How will justice be served? A depraved sequence of events sets the story in motion. We only learn as we progress into the novel how deep the corruption goes.
The title The Round House comes from a significant edifice in the life of Native Americans. The round house is a spiritual sweat lodge where tribal members gather to pray. Joe and his friend Cappy are the fire keepers, charged with keeping the sacred fire going. Joe’s Mooshum dreamed how to build and maintain the round house and the knowledge passes down from father to son to grandson. The round house is the reincarnation of the life-force of the buffalo, symbolized by buffalo women, so key to traditional Native American life, the poles of the round house her heart, the fire her heart.
The novel begins with Joe working with his father on the mundane chore of pulling out small saplings which have inexplicably entwined themselves in the foundation of their house. Joe is uncharacteristically persistent about eradicating them, and this idea of root-ripping ripples through the book. Joe misses his before-mother, and the emotions her rape elicits are bigger than he knows how to deal with:
I couldn’t help a sense of her fear from slashing through me and it made me weak.
The novel also can’t help being political, in the larger sense of dealing with internal and external affairs as they relate to the federal government and reservation law. And the nature of being Native American which the crime against his mother throws into sharp relief for Joe:
You can’t tell if a person is an Indian from a set of fingerprints. You can’t tell from a name. You can’t even tell from a local police report. You can’t tell from a picture. From a mug shot. From a phone number. From the government’s point of view, the only way you can tell an Indian is an Indian is to look at that person’s history. In most cases, the government will call the person an Indian if their blood is one quarter—it usually has to be one tribe. But that tribe has also got to be federally recognized. In other words, being an Indian is in some ways a tangle of red tape.
Erdrich uses some interesting storytelling devices in the writing of The Round House which contribute to the experience of reading the novel. She does not use any punctuation for the conversations. The effect is uncanny, making you feel like you’re listening to words uttered in your own head. Dreams and ghosts are presented as fact, something your mind simply needs to learn how to embrace. She also predicts to Joe’s future, which is at once unsettling and consoling.
In the end, Joe is his mother’s son, doing what he can do, what he must do to help his mother live the rest of her life without fear, returning to herself, her family:
I was never like so many Indian boys, who’d look down quiet in their anger and say nothing. My mother had taught me different.
Louise Erdrich is the author of fourteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, short stories, children’s books and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Most recently, The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark books, an independent bookstore.