Thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts and his father, a judge on the Ojibwe reservation where they live, are digging out fledgling tree roots that threaten to undermine the foundations of their house, when they realise that Joe’s mother has been gone all afternoon. She left the house to go to her office where she researches ‘the ever more complicated branching and unbranching’ of Indian family bloodlines, and should have been home hours ago. Joe looks to his father in that moment for reassurance, and his father delivers it. They will go and find her, he declares. But before they can do so, she returns home bloodied and traumatised, a victim of a particularly brutal rape.
Joe’s stable world is shaken for the first time, but not the last, in this fable of violent male initiation into adulthood. Whilst his mother withdraws into her bedroom, disappearing into her damaged self and severing contact with a world that dared to damage her so badly, Joe and his father set out for justice. What they find is far from satisfying. The crime took place in the area of the round house, a ceremonial structure now fallen into disrepair and situated in a patchwork of state, federal and tribal territories. The question of who has jurisdiction is a vexed one, and in this tangle of red tape, a killer is easily able to walk free. Joe loves his parents fiercely, but they are failing him now; his father as embodiment of the law, his mother as embodiment of love and nurture. Unable to summon the patience or the forebearance required to withstand the situation, Joe decides to take vengeance into his own hands.
In this story, which is both a coming-of-age narrative and the investigation of a crime, Louise Erdrich brilliantly details a web of injustices surrounding the lives of native American Indians. In a shocking afterword to the novel she quotes the statistic that one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and 89 percent of those rapes are perpetrated by non-Native men, of whom few are prosecuted. It is part and parcel of the unresolved mistreatment of Indians in America that extends into the present day (the novel is set in the 1980s), and reverberates through the troubles in the story over the rights of Joe, his family and his friends, to a safe and prosperous life.
This is a beautifully woven backdrop, however, to the more immediate and vivid portrait of Joe’s adolescent life, which plays out amongst a jumble of assorted friends and relatives. Joe is part of a tight-knit gang of four youths who mess around on bikes, get into endless trouble, sneak cigarettes and cans of beer, worship certain television programmes (Star Trek; The Next Generation) and fantasise about women. They are a bawdy and rambunctious bunch, forever hungry, and poignantly innocent in their vulgarity. Some of the best scenes concern the new priest they are spying on (he is briefly a suspect for the rape), a former marine and a survivor of the 1983 Embassy bombing in Lebanon, a man whose cast-iron physique and whip-sharp intellect are ‘almost enough to make a boy want to be a Catholic.’ Some of the others revolve around Joe’s aunt Sonia, a former stripper, whose breasts feature all too heavily in Joe’s fantasy life. The emotional layering is formidable here, as Erdrich paints her canvas with glorious humour, tenderness, loyalty, territorial squabbles between young and old, and all those little acts of transgression that colour the disenchantment of growing up.
The web of community that Erdrich draws stands not just as a snapshot of a highly particular way of life in an era of heightened awareness for her young protagonist; it is also the testing ground Joe inhabits where he must find out whose feet are made of clay. In the devastating crisis that afflicts his family, where will he find reliable help? Into the mix come the old stories, told by his ancient grandfather, Mooshum, stories of heroic and seemingly impossible survival, the legends handed down through generations. It reminded me very much of the Greek myths of male initiation, when Jason or Hercules or Perseus had to engage in bloody, life-threatening battle to become men. As Joe grapples with realities that are far too adult for him, it is his psychic survival that is at stake. And as in those Greek myths, he will have to prove his valour with violence if he is to avenge the wrongs done to his family and become the man he demands himself to be.
This is a powerful book, at times harrowing, at times hilarious, stitched together perfectly by Louise Erdrich’s amazing prose. I knew I was in the presence of a special author here, someone whose works will last long, long into the future. Please, those who have already read Erdrich – what to read next by her?