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.
At 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.