Review: The Round House – Louise Erdrich

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I’d only vaguely heard of Lousie Erdrich before coming to this book but have now found out that she is an acclaimed writer of books featuring Native Americans and is enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her Wikipedia entry tells us that she is one quarter Native American and runs a book store called Birchbark Books in Minneapolis which provides a wealth of resources to school-teachers and others who wish to find out more about Native American culture.

The Round House is a very well-written book from an obviously mature writer.  You don’t get to be this good a writer overnight and Erdrich’s previous dozen or so novels have born fruit in this complex novel about a Native American boy on the cusp of manhood grappling with a terrible violation of his mother Geraldine by an anonymous stranger.

The book opens one Sunday in 1988 when Joe’s mother fails to return home in time to make the dinner.  Joe and his father go out in the car to look for her and after a few visits to places she might be, they suddenly see her speeding towards them in the other direction, “riveted, driving over the speed limits, anxious to get back home to us”.

When Joe and his father have turned round and arrived home they find Geraldine in a terrible state, vomit down the front of her dress, and her dark blood soaking the car seat.  She has been raped.  They rush her to hospital but she is unable to talk about what happened to her, either to her family or to the police, a silence which continues long after she returns home.  Geraldine is so traumatised that she takes to her bed and retreats into herself, refusing to talk to anyone and spending much of the day either sleeping or pretending to be asleep.

Joe’s father Bazil is a judge, and Joe has always looked up to him, respectful of his place in the community.  But while Bazil tries hard to get to grips with his wife’s condition, nothing seems to penetrate her psychic isolation.  Joe is on the cusp of manhood and begins to feel frustrated by his father’s impotence, and also discovers that the great man he looked up to all his life, is in fact a judge of very petty cases, anything more serious being referred upwards away from the Reservation court system  to the Federal courts.  So Joe, together with his three best friends tries to investigate what happens for himself.

erdrich 2At this point I saw elements of Huckleberry Finn in the story for the the four boys go off on their bikes into the woods where his mother was attacked – a wonderful depiction of a boy’s own story of amateur detection work – until of course Joe finds himself completely out of his depth by what he discovers.

The book tells us much about Reservation Life.  We read of a very communal life, with aunties and uncles, aged grandparents and a network of inter-related friends and other family. One fascinating section tells of a “sweat lodge” which is created by a local shaman to hold tribal ceremonies in which sacred pipes and medicines are used and special prayer requests are dealt with.

The book diverts into the personal history of some of the characters with for example, 15 pages devoted to a woman called Linda who was adopted into the tribe having been abandoned by her white parents as a baby due to her disabilities.  We read of the loving treatment handed out to her as her Native American adoptive parents massaged her damaged skull and limbs back into a more normal shape.  Another lengthy passage is devoted to the memories of Joe’s grandfather, Mooshum, who had a traditional Native American upbringing.

The tribal community is still awash with mythical beliefs.  Ghosts haunt the local cemetery and charms can bring good luck. Legends and rituals abound and provide a backdrop of meaning to the complexities of a hybrid life in which children play computer games and adults have to make their way in the modern world while holding to tribal values.

There are so many themes in this book it’s difficult to home in on one in particular. On one level The Round House is a mystery novel – what happened to Joe’s mother?  On another level, it’s very much about Joe’s coming of age as he takes responsibility for researching matters the adults find themselves unable to.  And then there is so much about the difficulties of tribal co-existence with the white community who so easily slip into seeing the Native Americans as a subject people, a curiosity, with the Reservation being almost an curious exhibit.

I really can’t fault this book.  It’s very well-written and has complex plotting with many inter-linking themes.  I certainly closed the last page knowing far more about how Native Americans live while also having been entertained by a very wide-ranging and unusual cast of characters.

A helpful Afterword tells us that 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped during their lifetime and that 86% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by non-Native men.  President Barack Obama called the situation “an assult on our national conscience” and signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law in 2010.  An article on the White House website reports that this Act will “include a strong emphasis on decreasing violence against women in Native communities”.


The photograph of Louise Erdich above comes from Wikipedia and can be used for promotional purposes.

15 comments to Review: The Round House – Louise Erdrich

  • Everywhere I’ve turned over the past few days I’ve ‘bumped into’ Louise Erdrich, a writer of whom I’d never heard before. I checked out her work on one of the book websites and decided that she didn’t sound like a writer whose novels I would enjoy, but lately I’ve begun to think that I stay far too much within my comfort zone where my reading choices are concerned. She is going to be interviewed on Radio 4 this coming weekend and I should listen to that, see what recommendations I can pick up from the discussion and then be more adventurous for once.

  • Those statistics about rape and Native American women are really shocking.

    I like the idea of lots of themes bumping into one another in a book. Personally, though I rarely ever really sort them out in such a book, it really adds to my reading experience.

  • Kat

    She’s a brilliant writer: I started rereading an early cycle of novels that centers on one Native American family at different periods of the 20th century, and it is brilliant: Love Medicine, Tracks, and The Bingo Palace (and I think I’m missing one). They’re brilliant and dense. She writes beautifully, and you couldn’t have found a better American writer (though I haven’t read The Round House yet).

  • Sounds to have classic bits of american in four boys in the wood could also be from stand by me the film ,she is a writer I keep seeing mention ,but as I trying to cut down on us fiction I may not get to here at any point soon ,all the best stu

  • Erdrich is an excellent writer! I read her work in college and loved it. I have this one on my TBR pile at home and really looking forward to it. Great post, Tom!

  • I was curious to know more about this book as I liked Love Medicine very much. it’s unusual as it’s rather a series of short stories. The writing is very different. I don’t know anyone who writes like her.
    These are appaling numbers 1 in 3 women.
    I think I^’d like to read this as well.

  • Hi Beauty is a Sleeping Cat! Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away.. I was very impressed with the book although I don’t usually read books about Native Americans preferring to focus on Europe

  • Hi Nadia Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away. I’d never heard of Erdrich before I read this book but obviusly she’s highly regarded. Shows how ignorant I am of American fiction

  • Hi Stu Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away.. Yes, you’ve got a point there – I also don’t read a lot of US fiction.

  • Hi Kat Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away. Just shows how little I know about contemporary American fiction that I’ve never heard of her. Thanks for visiting

  • Hi Brian – Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away. Thanks for visiting. I’ll catch up with your blog soon

  • Hi Alex Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away.. Thanks for the heads up about the R4 interview

  • The Bingo Palace has been on my TBR for years and years. I never seem to find the right time to read it. I have read the novel she wrote in collaboration with her husband, Michael Dorris, The crown of Columbus. I remember enjoying it at the time but it’s not one of those books that stuck. She and her husband separated a year or so after it was published and then a few years after that he committed suicide. All very sad but I think she was probably the better writer and I’ve been wanting to read one of her books to check that out.

  • Hi Sue – this really is a very good book – I wasn’t exagerrating in my review – it deals with very difficult issues but Eldrich seems to have a deep understanding of her subject while also being fully part of the “white” world too. I’ve never encountered her before but perhaps her books are more relevant to readers in the USA anyway?

  • Thank you for your balanced review. The Round HOuse has been sitting on my TBR stack since January. I had heard it was very dark and just have not been able to build up my courage. Silly – I should trust her!
    I have read Erdrich off and on for about twenty years. My favorite novel is the Master Butchers Singing Club.It is a big, rich story filled with amazing characters…quite unforgettable. The Painted Drum is lyrical, humorous (for Erdrich) and haunting…a less complex and less dark book than some of hers. One I will probably read again. The Blue Jay’s Dance (1995) is a non-fiction book poetically written with reflections on parenting, on being a woman, a writer, a daughter.She says, “These pages are a personal search and an extended wondering of life’s complexity.” It reminds me most of Gift of the Sea by Anne M. Lindbergh. Lest you think it is only for women, she adds, “For men primarily responsible for their baby’s care, please accept this book as your won as well, for you are magnificent.” My copy is heavily annotated from several readings.

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