by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
I’ve been reading Louise Erdrich since her first novel, Love Medicine, was published in 1984. That book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. I equate her to Barbara Kingsolver, that is, a writer who has always been solidly good and inventive and who only gets better with time. I can remember where I was when I read The Bean Trees (1988), Kingsolver’s first book. Although I don’t always adore their new books, I am always open to whatever journey they take me on. And each has a place in my reader’s heart.
So here we are, nearly 30 years later, and I had the chance to read The Round House, Erdrich’s 14th novel, published last fall to glowing reviews. I was traveling when I started it, hanging out in airport terminals and attempting to nest in my miniscule plane space. But what a treat to have uninterrupted reading time! This is truly a book that transports you out of your surroundings.
It is the summer of 1988. Twelve year old (almost 13) Joe Coutts narrates the The Round House from his home on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His dad, Bazil Coutts is a tribal lawyer; his mom, Geraldine helps Native Americans on the reservation and outsiders track down their family connections. The Coutts family is comfortably and deeply entwined in reservation life, history and connected by blood to many. Joe’s stable adolescence is terrifyingly broken by a brutal attack on his mother, an attack that leaves her severely injured. She slowly recovers but slips into a near comatose state, refusing to talk about the attack, refusing to eat, refusing to listen or speak. Facts emerge that indicate she knew her attacker, knew where it happened and why and that along with a brutal beating, was raped.
Numerous plot lines supplement the main story. Each intertwines, introducing characters as we go along, revealing long-time secrets and bringing us closer to a resolution. Justice, or rather injustice, is the core theme of the novel. Justice for Native Americans, for women, for the poor, the uneducated, for children. Religion as well. Father Travis, the new priest at the Catholic Church attempts to assist Joe and his bike-riding buddies in making decisions, although they rarely listen. Most Indians on the reservation attend church but also hold secret, ancient ceremonies in the round house, celebrate their heritage with pow-wows and believe in visions and ghosts.
One evening Joe sees a figure outside of his bedroom window:
“I think I saw a ghost last night, I told my father…The ghost was standing at the edge of the yard, I said. It looked almost like a real person.
Yes, they’re out there, my father answered.
My father, so strictly rational that he first refused the sacrament and then refused to attend Holy Mass at all, believed in ghosts.”
As Bazil becomes increasingly immersed in Geraldine’s recovery, Joe has more time to roam the reservation alone or accompanied by his buddies, Cappy, Zack, and Angus. They are lovable young men to us and to all the women on the reservation, from randy Grandma Ignatia, to the voluptuous, mothering Sonja, part-owner of the local gas station, to Aunt Clemence, Geraldine’s sister. Trouble is around every corner and the four boys find it all.
The great elder Mooshum, over 100 years old, in his lucid moments, recounts Indian lore about ghosts and spirits, elevating Joe’s imagination and teen-age angst, when he isn’t misplacing his dentures, that is.
In a wonderfully humorous moment, Cappy confesses to Father Travis that he had sex with the devout, young Zelia. In anger, Father Travis takes off after Cappy on foot and a reservation-wide chase begins.
“A Wolf-like roar seized Father Travis and he threw Cappy on the ground. His foot went back but Cappy rolled out of range. We picked up our bikes because Father Travis wasn’t moving now. He was standing there, breathing in deep gasps, head lowered, glaring from under his brow. We’d somehow gotten the upper moral ground in that moment and we knew it. We got on our bikes.”
Erdrich’s gift in the The Round House is to tell the complicated Native American story, via illustrious, magical story-telling, rather than morally dropping a hammer on our heads. She blends the historical and judicial facts within a hard-hitting mystery and coming of age story. We love Joe, as do all of his female watchers but we fear for him as he takes wilder and wilder risks to find his mother’s attacker. Erdrich delicately drops foreshadowing clues to let us know that Joe survives intact to adulthood and we are happy to hear this.
The crime is solved, but as a reader, we must decide if it was justly solved. Did the punishment match the crime? Erdrich wisely points out to us that little in life is black and white.
New York Times Book Review for The Round House.