The Round House - Louise Erdrich

ErdrichThe Round House

Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

Paperback, 321 pages, 2013

As happens with many coming-of-age novels, as we read The Round House we are lulled by the maturity of the language into thinking that the book is about the adult characters. And yet as the story unfolds we are inevitably drawn into the realization that the novel is, and must be, about the young narrator, about the effects on him or her of the milieu and the events that are being revealed to us, and about how those circumstances have forever altered his or her view of the world.

In this case, the narrator is Joe, a bright and perceptive 13-year-old boy whose mother Geraldine has been brutally attacked as the novel opens — an event that causes Joe’s hitherto safe and comprehensible world to collapse, pulling apart its seemingly secure framework one piece at a time. We see the struggles of Joe’s father –sense his dignity, pain, intelligence and bewilderment — and of Joe himself, and of other members of their closely knit community, as they try to help Geraldine rebuild her life in the aftermath of this horrific event. We recognize the silent agony of Geraldine herself: she will not name the perpetrator of the crime, or share the details; for a long time, it seems that she has decided not to mend, but simply to die.

But the novel isn’t about Geraldine; it is about the effect of his mother’s pain on Joe, and his growing awareness of the inability of the adults to help her ease it.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, is about justice and injustice, focusing specifically on the hopelessly tangled set of laws that emerged when the Europeans began to decide what property in North America was going to belong to whom – and, in fact, to decide what the word “property” itself would mean in that context. In so doing, they erased the rights and livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans, of which Louise Erdrich is one. In this novel, she has brought to life a community of diverse and intriguing characters who help her build a powerful message and increase our awareness of the history, plight and deep spirituality of her people.

Joe and his friends are wonderful incarnations of the restless balance between angst and silliness, maturity and childishness, that coexist in the minds and bodies of young teenagers everywhere. Joe’s grandpa, Mooshum, is an Ojibwe elder with chutzpah, knowledge, and the links to the past that Joe needs to understand before he can begin to fully realize the extent of the legal no-mans-land in which he and his people have come to live, and the losses they have suffered to get there. Joe’s father, a lawyer and tribal judge, who interprets the laws for Joe (and us), is a proud man who still believes that, given time, the white man’s statutes can be whittled away, eroded and rebuilt until justice for his people at last emerges. Joe does not have that kind of patience: he wants revenge, and he wants it now.

As did several others in the Goodreads group that suggested this book to me (The Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club: thank you!), I found several essential plot points in The Round House disappointingly convenient, given the scope, depth, and achievements of the novel as a whole.  But Erdrich’s language is so strong, so lovely and precise (“Linda Wishkob was magnetically ugly”) and her characters so compelling that we are drawn forward despite the infelicities of the plot. We want to keep reading and reading, to stay inside this compelling world.

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