It’s no surprise that The Round House, the 14th novel by acclaimed writer Louise Erdrich, is one of five finalists for the National Book Award (winner to be announced on Nov. 14). This novel continues the complex and sensitive saga of native Americans that Erdrich began with Love Medicine in 1984.
The Round House takes place in 1988 on a reserve in North Dakota. Geraldine Coutts, wife to Antone and mother to 13-year-old Joe, is late coming home one day. Antone and Joe set out to look for her, and they meet up back home only to discover Geraldine in a state of shock, her hands gripping the steering wheel of the family car. She has been brutally assaulted and nearly killed.
Antone is a tribal court judge and believes he must put his faith in the judicial system. But which one? Who has jurisdiction? The tangle of laws governing the lives of the Ojibwa on the reserve (or even determining who is Ojibwa) do not serve Geraldine. Joe wishes he could do something to help his mother who has completely withdrawn, spending time in bed, barely eating and rarely talking.
Joe wants more direct action than his father. And so over the summer, he tries to find out who hurt his mother and to devise a punishment. Like all Erdrich’s novels, this one is concerned with the challenges facing native Americans, and it touches on many aspects of life, including racism, family, friends, language, sex, violence and love. As befits its 13-year-old narrator, the novel is interlaced with references to popular culture and food, the focus of Joe and his three friends. They are captivated by Star Trek, especially The Next Generation. They want to be Worf. As Joe notes, “Worf’s solution to any problem was to attack.” The boys can make sandwiches disappear as if they were in a magic show, and they are tentatively exploring their growing sexuality. Every aspect of the novel is utterly realistic. Erdrich does not do romanticism or sentimentality. What she does is unflinching realism.
The novel works wonderfully both as social commentary and as a mystery, but over all it is literary fiction at its best. The Round House has echoes of characters from other Erdrich novels, such as the Kashpaw and Nanapush families. Vehicles are important, as is the imagery of fire. And worked into the fabric of the novel is historical perspective and information. Because of Antone’s work, Joe has access to legal books, which he devours, and he gives snippets of the landmark decisions that affect native-American life.
One of the central twists in the novel is that an Ojibwa family adopts a white baby girl named Linda because her parents reject her. She appears deformed when born, and the parents, Grace and George Lark, decide to let her die. Joe describes the Larks:
“The Larks were bumbling entrepreneurs and petty thieves, but they were also self-deceived. While their moral standards for the rest of the world were rigid, they were always able to find excuses for their own shortcomings. It is these people really, said my father, small-time hypocrites, who may in special cases be capable of monstrous acts if given the chance.”
Fortunately, an Ojibwa woman working as a night janitor saves the baby, and Linda is raised as an Indian and is loved and protected by her adoptive parents and siblings against the machinations of her biological parents. In Erdrich’s world, family is often composed of the people who take care of a person, and the issue of identity is key to all her novels. Bloodlines are also important to many characters and can cause problems. And, of course, the designation of who is an American Indian has much to do with complicated laws about blood. This novel shows unequivocally how messed up things are.
Erdrich controls the narration exquisitely. Joe has grown up and alludes to his adult life, but the novel is firmly focused on the summer when he tries to save his mother. Love, as Erdrich shows over and over in her work, is a powerful force, but it does not always lead to the right action. As Joe and his friends search for answers, the tumbledown structure called the Round House, once the heart of the Ojibwa community whose cultural practices were outlawed, signals the seismic shifts in the way of life of the people and how assaults on culture are as damaging as, if not more than, assaults on individuals. In many ways The Round House argues that these attacks stem from similar grounds. And that we must all work together to try to prevent more of them.
Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria.