”One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.
While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.”
Thoughts: The Round House by Louise Erdrich is the story of Joe Coutts as his life is turned upside-down after his mother is brutally attacked on beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. As Joe desperately searches for a way to heal his family after the tragedy, readers are taken on a journey to life on a reservation, exploring scenes of abject poverty and fierce community pride. It is as much a coming-of-age story as it is an expose on the antiquated, confusing, and unfair laws that surround reservations and guide those living both on and around them.
The characters make up the heart and soul of The Round House. Joe is such a teenage boy – constantly hungry, eager for independence, and yet still desiring the comforts and solace found at home with his loving parents. When that comfort is brutally ripped away from the entire Coutts family, Joe is left holding the pieces, and a reader is swept up in his despair, confusion, anger, and desperation. Cappy, Zack, and Angus make for a great source of refuge in Joe’s time of need, but they also provide some much-needed comic relief as they continue to fight their own fights to survive in this harsh reservation life. Ms. Erdrich’s captures the nuances of teenage boys perfectly, with their growing obsession with girls and girl parts, their particular brand of joking, the language used to denote an unwavering friendship, and most importantly, their fragility as well as their fierce protection of any mother figure. It is accurate enough to create a reader’s own well of protectionism towards this group of gangly young men. The rest of the cast draws an equally fervid emotional response within a reader. Geraldine and Bazil’s struggles to recover from her traumatic attack are just the type of the iceberg. The family dynamic on the reservation is a marvel and exquisitely portrayed by Ms. Erdrich.
The Round House is not a novel to rush but to be savored. In fact, it is a story that builds methodically, taking time to set the stage and build the appropriate mood. Once a reader gets into the heart of the story however, it is difficult to stop reading. Ms. Erdrich’s prose is poetic and yet concise with an exacting attention to detail that makes it easy for a reader to paint mental images of the unfolding scenes and enhance the entire reading experience.
After finishing the novel, there is no doubt how or why Ms. Erdrich won the National Book Award for The Round House. It is a stunning piece of fiction that not only explores human nature but shines a spotlight on the harsh realities of reservation law and the fragile détente that still exists between Native Americans and the conquering Anglos. It is this latter element which surprises readers the most, or those who may not be familiar with current reservation laws and how archaic they truly are. The inexplicable lack of justice caused through loopholes within the judicial system are disturbing in their blatant disregard for human rights and adds much of the tension throughout the novel. Joe, in spite of his teenage churlishness, is just as much of a victim as his mother, and the novel’s disturbing ending will rend heartstrings more than Geraldine’s attack did. The Round House is an excellent story, but more importantly, it forces readers to confront the injustices that the US policies towards/against Native Americans continue to create. In this season of taking stock of one’s blessings and helping others less fortunate, what could be better than that?
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Danielle Plafsky from HarperCollins for my review copy!