The Round House
A Novel by Louise Erdrich
2012 / 336 Pages
Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award-winning novel opens in 1988 on a North Dakota Native American reservation. Geraldine Coutts has gone to run a few errands, but she hasn’t returned home yet, and her husband and son are starting to worry. When Geraldine finally does return, she is quite obviously in shock and covered in blood. Joe is only 13 years old, but he understands that his mother has been brutally attacked and raped. Joe and his father, Bazil, try to piece together the events so they can identify the attacker, but Geraldine has retreated inside herself and refuses to speak about the event.
Over the course of the next few months, Bazil and Joe are eventually able to identify the rapist, but the complexities of Native American reservation laws prevent him from being prosecuted. At this point, Joe is beginning to understand the porous nature of the legal system – a system that has never allowed justice and equality for his people – a system that is so full of loopholes and red tape that it is rendered practically useless. Joe realizes that he cannot rely on the government to bring his family retribution, and his family is falling apart at the seams, so he and his friends take matters into their own hands, which leads to a string of life-altering and remarkable events.
The Round House is a book that demonstrates the need for complete reform in the way our legal system deals with minorities, women, and sexual crimes. Yes, it’s an unpleasant subject matter, but it is a reality that our government has yet to face. Erdrich skillfully sheds light on these issues through discussions of legal cases, traditional ceremonies, and the story of the Coutts family themselves. But The Round House extends its scope beyond legal concerns, and also demonstrates the moral, psychological, and religious implications of such a crime. And these implications are not limited to the victim by any means. The entire community is affected by the event in some way or another.
Told retrospectively from Joe’s point of view, The Round House is often described as a coming-of-age novel, which it certainly is. But it’s also a book about family, history, tradition, loyalty, addiction, poverty, and the way our country’s legal system continues to fall short in providing Native Americans with justice and equality. It also serves to demonstrate the lack of progress with these issues in the last 25 years. Louise Edrich has struck a national nerve with this novel, which will hopefully contribute to legislative reform and legal action in regards to Native American rights, women’s rights, and sexual crimes.
After finishing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk I was left with the feeling that I may have started my National Book Award reading in the wrong place. Could any other title come as close to capturing that certain “feeling” of what an NBA winner should be? Would any other book capture such a vivid snapshot of a critical period of American life in such a captivating way? It was with much trepidation that I decided to move on to Louise Erdrich’s The Round House as my second read and as of this moment I’m halfway through Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King. I’m happy to report that not only are both also worthy contenders for the award in their own right, but they’re also much better, in my opinion, than some of this year’s Booker and Giller finalists.
The Round House is 1/3 coming of age story, 1/3 crime novel, and 1/3 Indian historical lesson which while engaging is ultimately a tad disappointing with regards to its conclusion. It’s an important novel however for its examination of tribal laws and jurisdictions and unflinching look it takes at life on the reservation. In the novel’s Afterward Erdrich drops this shocking bomb: according to a 2009 report by Amnesty International 1 in 3 Native women becomes the victim of rape in her lifetime. Holy SHIT. Think of the number of instances that aren’t reported due to fear or embarrassment and try to convince me that the number isn’t even higher than that. She goes on to state that 86 percent of these sexual assaults are committed by non-Native men and that “few” (where’d her math disappear to?) are ever prosecuted.
Perhaps it’s awful for me to admit, but I can’t even remember the last time I saw a Native American person up close and in the flesh (unless Elizabeth Warren counts.) It’s not that I’d forgotten that they existed or the hardships they’ve endured…oh fine, since we’re being honest maybe that’s exactly the case. Again awful to say, but I just don’t think about Native Americans all that much, unless of course our states legislators want to grant them permission to open up a new casino near me, which is currently the case, then I get angry and frustrated, but damn, it was their land first, no?
The Round House is less about casinos and more about violent crime and rape. Told through the eyes of grown man reflecting back on the summer of 1988 in his thirteenth year of existence the novel paints a expressive picture of what life on a typical Indian reservation must have been like. This one happens to be called Hoopdance and is located in North Dakota, but it felt like it could have really been situated anywhere. Our narrators name is Antone, though he prefers to go by Joe, and as the novel opens his mother is brutally attacked and raped. Who would do such a thing and why?
It takes Erdrich nearly 350 pages to unravel the mystery behind it all, but along the way she lovingly invents and crafts some very distinct individuals. Joe’s father, a local judge, and his aunt Sonja, a gas station attendant with amazing breasts are two stand out examples of complex, conflicted characters who feel a responsibility one way, but at the same time are pulled by a force beyond their control in the exact opposite direction. His group of friends and other family members are also beautifully realized as is the local Catholic priest who plays an important role in the novel’s proceedings.
In the end though, the story being told betrays the beauty of the individuals that are supposedly living it. The perpetrator of the crime becomes obvious rather quickly and the resolution is fairly predictable, if not downright groan worthy at particular moments.
Where this novel succeeds is in the other 2/3rds, namely the coming of age of Joe and the Indian historical lessons provided along the way. It’s often said that two out of three ain’t bad, and here in fact it’s much better than great, but the novel falls just shy of being truly special.
However if Billy Lynn captures the perfect snapshot of America’s post-911 feelings and reactions to the Iraq war in 2004 then The Round House most certainly does equally as good of a job of capturing an image of what life for Native Americans circa 1990 looked like.
The sad fact of it all? It doesn’t sound like things have improved much for these individuals over the past twenty years.