Last year for CBR4, I reviewed Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize nominated novel The Plague of Doves and gave it 4 stars (which seems stingy in retrospect — it deserved 5). Her latest National Book Award-winning novel The Round House is another brilliant work. As far as I’m concerned, Erdrich is the best American writer around.
The events of The Round House occur in the summer of 1988. Our narrator is a 14-year-old Native named Joe, son of Judge Coutts and Geraldine (characters from The Plague of Doves). They live on a reservation in North Dakota, where dad is a tribal judge, mom is a recorder of genealogies and Joe hangs out with his buddies doing fairly typical things like riding bikes, hanging out at the lake, drinking and smoking. Their lives are shattered when Geraldine is violently raped. Geraldine retreats into herself, refusing to divulge details about the crime to tribal, state or federal officials (the question of exactly where the crime occurred will be important to determining who has jurisdiction). The Judge re-examines cases he tried in order to see if he can figure out who might want to hurt him and his family. Joe and his friends engage in some investigating of their own, and Joe makes startling discoveries about the crime and members of his community. Ultimately, he must decide how he will act on what he has learned, and the choice is excruciating for him.
The plot is grim but, sadly, based on a staggering reality — that one third of Native women are raped, 86% by non-Native men, and that justice is rarely served. Erdrich, who is part Chippewa, provides statistics and facts at the end of the novel. The lack of justice will surely make readers burn, but injustice is part of Native American history. Erdrich does a beautiful job of weaving Native history into her stories without making it seem forced or pedantic. The facts flow naturally into conversations that characters have, and the reader can see the influence of 200 years’ worth of US government decisions on the lives of Natives today.
As a writer, Erdrich is simply amazing. Her imagination and ability to put herself in the place of different ages, sexes and cultures is superb. She can write the dream sequence of Mooshum, explaining the tale of the wiindigoo, a spirit that possesses a person at a time of desperation. Then she can produce a detailed conversation between fourteen year olds about Star Trek Next Generation. She can break your heart with Joe’s decisions and his friends’ fates, and she can make you laugh out loud when the priest hears a confession that causes him to chase a teen out of the church and around the neighborhood. One especially delightful character is Grandma Ingnatia, aka Grandma Thunder, who scandalizes the younger people with her frank talk about sex. When Joe and his friends go to her place for lunch, they get an earful.
You boys listen up, said Grandma Ingatia. You want to learn something? Want to learn how to keep your little peckers hard all your life? Go and go? Live clean like Napoleon. Liquor makes you quicker and that’s no good. Bread and lard keep it hard! He is eighty-seven and he not only gets it up easy, he can go five hours at a stretch.
We wanted to sneak away but were pulled back by that last piece of information.
By far the most powerful writing deals with Geraldine’s trauma. The revelation of the crime committed against her is shocking and brutal. Equally devastating is the way Erdrich describes the aftermath — Geraldine’s anguish and depression and its effect on her family. In one scene, Geraldine is taken by surprise when she doesn’t hear her husband enter the house. He hugs her from behind, causing her to scream and drop the casserole dish she had been holding. Joe narrates what followed:
…my mother flushed darkly and an almost imperceptible shudder coursed over her. She took a gasping breath, and put her hand to her wounded face. Then she stepped over the mess on the floor and walked carefully away…. As she walked up each riser she looked straight ahead and her hand was firm on the banister. Her steps were soundless. She seemed to float. My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.
Erdrich creates a rich, complicated, fascinating community peopled with very human characters. They are flawed (some drink too much, some can be abusive, some are less than honest) but despite their mistakes and flaws, still do selfless beautiful things for one another. They are real. And the resolution to the plot is also very real, a mix of relief and sorrow.
You could read The Round House without reading The Plague of Doves first, but you would be giving yourself a treat to read them back to back. Erdrich is a national treasure and I intend to read all of her books and hope that she doesn’t stop writing for a long time.