The Round House by Louise Erdrich
By Kris Pikaart
If you haven’t read her yet, you deserve to be introduced to the author Louise Erdrich. I have been enjoying the novels of this prolific writer for several decades. She has written 14 novels, as well as poetry and a few books of non-fiction.
Erdrich is a member of Ojibwe tribe, the daughter of teachers of a BIA school. Nearly all of her novels take place in North Dakota on or around a fictional reservation. Though her novels span decades of time, she weaves familial ties into each one. The more of her novels you read, the better you will be at tracing the lineage of her characters through decades, even centuries of time. If you want to start at the beginning of these complicated family trees, you might begin with her trilogy: Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks. Over the course of decades, Erdrich has created the history and characters of a reservation so convincingly that I had totally forgotten that her unnamed tribe and reservation do not actually exist outside of story form. She has such an ear for people, that it seems an impossibility that her characters – in particular the elderly folks – can’t simply be found by heading out on a road trip to North Dakota.
This book review’s purpose is to convince you to pick up any of her books, but especially her newest novel, The Round House. The same interrelated cast of characters comes alive in The Round House, but centers on a boy named Joe, his mother Geraldine, and father Bazil. Joe is a thirteen-year-old boy in 1988 – precocious in many ways, but so typical in others. His father, Bazil, is a quirky, thoughtful judge for the tribal law system. The plot centers around the brutal attack and rape of Joe’s mother, and is, at heart, a mystery novel with a decidedly political bent. After returning home from a near death attack, Geraldine falls into a prolonged period of physical and emotional healing in which she tells her family almost nothing about her attacker. Joe knows from stories his father has told him that the FBI’s investigations into crimes on the reservation are fraught with political complications. So Joe and his best friends begin to investigate the scene for themselves. All that they have to go on is the knowledge that the crime transpired in the tribe’s round house – a now abandoned spot for ceremonies, dances, and story-telling. Bazil and Joe eventually learn who did it, but the mystery does not end there. Because the Round House resides on the border of tribal, state, and federal land, there is no way, say the officials, to prosecute the crime. Eventually, Joe and his friends feel they need to take matters into their own hands.
As a mystery story, The Round House is a good one. There are twists and turns and clues galore. But this story is so much more than a simple mystery. It is the unique coming-of-age story of a young Native boy. There are many vying to be the guides for these boys – the Catholic priest, the 112-year-old grandfather, the crazy uncles, the traditional neighbors, and even the ex-stripper aunty who Joe lusts after. Most end up seeming good-hearted, but ultimately unable to guide this young Native boy into adulthood. Families are fraught with difficulty, and yet, through poverty of spirit and body, remain a loving net for these boys.
This probably sounds like a heavy plot for a summer read. And it certainly is a lot to contemplate. The prevalence of sexual assault amongst Native women (and the jurisdictional issues surrounding these crimes) is a horrifying reality to contemplate. But this novel is much more than a study on tribal history and crime. There are tremendously funny moments of this story as the boys come of age in a community rife with stories and wisdom. Some of the best moments of the novel are the interactions between the boys and the people who seek to give them wisdom. When they suspect the new Catholic priest of having something to do with the crime, they go on a hilarious Peeping Tom mission in which the boys get an eyeful, and are subsequently chased around the village by Father Travis, trying all the while to stay away from the worst of the rez dogs. Another time, they end up at Grandma’s house when they become so hungry for fry bread that they are willing to listen to the non-stop raunchy tales she serves up with dinner.
Anything from Erdrich’s pen is worth picking up. You will feel at home in her warm, complicated, story-rich families. You might even be reminded of the power a story has to shine light into the darkest corners of humanity.