The Round House by Louise Erdrich (New York: HarperCollins, 2012. 326 pp)

Louise Erdrich lives with her family in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore. She is also the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels for adults, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves and the National Book Award finalist The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. She is also the author of the picture book Grandmother’s Pigeon, illustrated by Jim LaMarche.

A Crime, Unspeakable

In the spring of 1988, a woman named Geraldine, who is living on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, is attacked. Her husband, Bazil, and son, Joe, find her in a car drenched in blood and reeking of gasoline. Geraldine is incredibly, and understandably, reluctant to reveal what happened.  Joe tries to help his mother after her attack, but his mom won’t leave her bed, and becomes a lonely shell of a woman.

Bazil is a tribal judge, and he endeavors to rectify the situation and exact justice on his wife’s attacker.  Joe, meanwhile, investigates with his friends hoping to get some answers of his own. Joe’s quest leads him to the round house, the place of worship for his tribe, and the setting for this heinous crime.

As father and son seek answers, they discover the complicated relationship between reservation law and United States law. What might have been an easy case anywhere else, becomes clouded in the gray area between sovereign nations (U.S. and Native American) living in the same place. Too young to understand these complexities, Joe teeters between taking the law into his own hands and trusting his father to achieve justice through due diligence.

A Book for Social Justice

Donovan: The Round House has some incredibly deep themes. Is this book more than entertainment, Andrew?

Andrew: This book is a serious attempt by the author, who herself is part Chippewa, to create attention to help rectify the culture of the Native American as it stands in current society. Erdrich has already won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the U.S. prize given for works that foster a proper conversation around the issues of racism and social justice. Erdrich does so by creating vivid, plausible characters who take part in a believable world. Furthering her efforts, the family scenario within the book certainly tugs at the heartstrings of the average reader.

“We read with concentrated intensity. My father had become convinced that somewhere within his bench briefs, memos, summaries, and decisions lay the identity of the man whose act had nearly severed my mother’s spirit from her body” (45).

Andrew: Did you perceive any social themes, Donovan?

Donovan: The Round House forces its reader to address issues of marginalization, inequity, and racism. Early in the narrative, Joe discovers the unfairness of life. As a Native American, Joe grows up feeling other. As much as possible, his family avoids off-reservation expeditions. While they want to support local business, first and foremost, they avoid the surrounding areas because they don’t want to deal with the condescension of white people.

Life as a Native American is complicated. Identity, for starters, is rather muddled.

“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. There must be ancestors from way back who signed some document or were recorded as Indian by the U.S. government, someone identified as a member of a tribe. And then after that you have to look at that person’s blood quantum, how much Indian blood they’ve got that belongs to one tribe. In most cases, the government will call the person an Indian if their blood is one quarter—it usually has to be from 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” (29-30).

If being an Indian is a tangle of red tape, it stands to reason Native American society is equally ambiguous. Without clear identity, how can you find direction?

Redemption for the Depressed?

Donovan: Erdrich’s narrative is not for the faint of heart. Why did she write such a depressing topic?

Andrew: Erdrich brings light to the sinful nature of this world with her eloquent, depressing prose.

“I drove into that weedy lot, parked the car. He tackled me as I was walking up the hill. Took the keys.  Then he pulled out a sack. He dragged it over my head so fast. It was a light rosy material, loose, maybe a pillowcase. But it went down so far, past my shoulders, I couldn’t see. He tied my hands behind be. Tried to get me to tell him where the file was and I said there’s no file. I don’t know what file he’s talking about. He turned me around and marched me…held my shoulder. Step over this, go that way, he said. He took me somewhere” (159).

Andrew: While the prose is tight, well-crafted, and inherently sad, is there anything redeeming in The Round House?

Donovan: I think so. Another interesting theme in The Round House surrounded the idea of justice. At its root, justice is about rightness; it suggests a state where everything finds balance. In reality, justice is an end game; it’s not the process.

Thus, there are many ways to achieving justice. It seems as if restorative justice is the best option. Under the restorative notion, justice functions as reconciliation. It is a way to make things right, to repair broken relationships, and to establish a life better than before.

Often, however, justice is retributive. When people see a wrong committed, they want to return evil with evil. The inequitable system facing Native Americans makes the call for retributive justice even stronger. But, Joe’s father always needs to cross his “t’s” and dot his “i’s” in the courtroom to ensure long-term justice.

“Everything we do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. We try to press against the boundaries of what we are allowed, walk a step past the edge. Our records will be scrutinized by Congress one day and decisions on whether to enlarge our jurisdiction will be made. Some day. We want the right to prosecute criminals of all races on all lands within our original boundaries. Which is why I try to run a tight courtroom, Joe. What I am doing now is for the future, though it may seem small, or trivial, or boring, to you” (229-230).

Yet while Joe and Bazil hope for a day where justice reigns equally, they face an unbalanced reality. In fact, the sacred round house—the place where Joe’s mother suffered from that atrocious crime—was built as a rondure symbol of restorative justice.

“He’d met Nanapush there and together they had built the round house, the sleeping woman, the unkillable mother, the old lady buffalo. They’d built that place to keep their people together and to ask for mercy from the Creator, since justice was so sketchily applied on earth” (315).

But symbols are no good for Joe. His mother has been violated. If the state won’t make things right, Joe and his friends will make every attempt for retribution.

A Coming-of-Age Story

Donovan: Any final thoughts, Andrew?

Andrew: All of the tumult is described in a voice that’s smooth, yet exciting. This prose is something hard to find, something precious, and something to be lauded. The author crafts a disturbing tale that enlightens the reader as to the nature of the Native American life.

Andrew: What’s your verdict, Donovan?

Donovan: The Round House closely resembles the youth-growing-up-too-quickly narrative. Much like Stand by Me on the silver screen and To Kill a Mockingbird in the annals of classic literature, The Round House depicts a young boy facing unspeakable horrors for which he has no context or frame of reference for understanding.

“The damned carcass had stolen from her. Some warm part of her was gone and might not return. This new formidable woman would take getting to know, and I was thirteen. I didn’t have the time” (193).

Joe blunders through the novel with the innocence and lack of discernment of a thirteen year old. While he considers himself a sleuth, the grown-ups around him see right through him. Yet, their allowance of his exploratory ways invites a sense of community. Everyone knows Joe is processing the unspeakable and they are giving him space to find himself.

With unsettling topics balanced by young characters, The Round House is a deep read. While not necessarily enjoyable from an entertainment perspective (who wants to read about rape?), the book holds value. Its topics are a reality faced by many Native Americans. When justice is applied so sketchily here on earth, it is important to find avenues for advocacy. The Round House speaks with a clear voice toward the injustices around us. May we come to understand the plight of others.

Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5

Donovan’s Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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