The Round House

RoundHouseThirteen-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?

30 thoughts on “The Round House

  1. I look forward to reading this…I remember reading Tracks when it first came out in the 1980s, and it has stayed with me ever since, so I can definitely recommend that if you want to read more by her.

  2. I’m in the middle of reading The Round House, and like you, I’m loving it. Other Erdrich books I recommend, in addition to Tracks: Love Medicine, Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Plague of Doves.

    Many of her works have recurring characters so once you start reading you will be hooked;-)

    • I love the thought of recurring characters. I really like series of books that do that, so I think I’m hooked already on the idea! Thank you also for the recommendations – that’s fantastic.

    • Oh I’m all for a clear-sighted assessment of one’s reading mood. If I haven’t got my own quite right, it’s the cause of more DNFs than anything else, I think! This is less grim than it may appear, but it definitely has grim bits.

  3. She is a very powerful writer. I would suggest Love Medicine. It’s stunning. Interwoven stories that build a canvas of connected lives. Very dry prose, Nothing superfluous, yet still poetic.
    This sounds very good indeed. Those statistics are appalling.

    • The statistics sent a chill down my spine – horrific. But so glad to know you love her, too. And thank you for the recommendation (I actually own a copy of Love Medicine, which makes it even better!).

  4. I read a really rather negative review of this, so it was nice to read something to balance it out. I’ve always meant to read some of her books, but never got round to it, so am looking at the recommendations with interest. Also, I am half-asleep which is why this is such a weirdly flat comment… But I enjoyed your review!

    • Helen, it is lovely to have you visit no matter what state you’re in! I imagine it’s a book that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, although the writing is so good you’d be hard pressed to criticise that aspect of it. But I found it very accessible, and rich in ideas and characterisation. Would love to know what you think of her if you do get around to reading her novels (and believe me, I have the longest list EVER of authors I really, really intend to get to….).

  5. I add my voice to those suggesting Tracks. Erdrich is a local author, she even has her own bookstore, Birchbark Books. I’ve not been but a friend has who says it is small, but cozy and welcoming and has a great selection of books by and about Native Americans as well as other books too.

    • Oh she’s living the dream – an author with her own bookstore! I think I’ve just heard a description of paradise…. And thank you for the recommendation, Stefanie – definitely seems that Tracks is the place to start.

  6. Oh boy, a new author to explore! I realize of course there are hundres of authors to read but your review of this book, and the subsequent recommendations, have me very excited to head to the library this weekend!

    • Courtney, I know you’ll appreciate the quality of the writing of this one. And her sense of humour reminded me in a way of yours, too. I’d love to know what you think of her!

  7. I seem to have been running into reviews of this book all over the place recently and all of them make me feel that I would love to read something of this writer’s work but that this is a subject I would find difficult to read about without becoming extremely angry. I think I am going to have to look through the recommendations you’ve got and start with something a little less harrowing.

    • I completely agree that the subject matter has to be a huge consideration in taking on a book, no matter how well written. I’m in no position to say what her other novels are like, but bloggers have been very good with the suggestions! I’d love to know what you make of her work.

  8. Yet another book I hope my library has! Yesterday I picked up two that I had on hold thanks to you: Julie And Romeo and Eat Cake. I had never heard of Jeanne Ray until you posted about the former. So now, I’ll add this one as well. How much fun it is to learn about good writers!

    • Grad, that is one wonderful piece of literary variety you have there, Jeanne Ray on one hand, Louise Erdrich on the other! But both of them very good writers in extremely different ways. You will let me know how you get on with them, won’t you?

  9. I would start with Love Medicine. Erdrich’s finest novel. I’ve just finished The Round House and I think it was the best novel I’ve read in years. A tragedy, a coming-of-age, a thriller, a whodunnit and laugh-out-loud funny. Your excellent review has made me think about other aspects of the novel, too. I think I’m going right back to the beginning to read all of Erdrich’s novels.
    By the way, I didn’t quite get what exactly happened to the money in the doll and how much Sonja took?

    • Nicola, I am so happy that you loved it too! It really is all those things you said and more, and the writing is outstanding. As for the doll, my reading was that Sonja dug up the passbooks and took all the money except for $10,000. Joe says he has ‘more than $40,000’ initially. Sonja splits that money between lots and lots of small accounts all in Joe’s name so it shouldn’t be too noticeable, and then buries the bank books in a box in the forest. But of course, knowing where it is, the temptation is too great for her. I wondered whether the money would have a sense of bad karma about it, but it seems as if it’s laundered instead in an almost literal way by being put in the accounts (after being dried and ironed by Sonja!) and then used for Joe’s education. It was a cool part of the plot, I thought!

  10. I meant to tell you, there’s a Anishinaabe writer named Jim Northrup from the Fond Du Lac rez who knows Louise, Heid, and Lise Erdrich. He calls them the “Shinnob version of the Bronte sisters” 🙂

  11. Wow–that statistic is really shocking and very sad. I have not read a lot of Native American literature and nothing (yet) by Louise Erdrich, but I do have a few of her books on my shelves. She does indeed seem like a very special writer!

  12. Pingback: Tales from the Reading Room

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