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The Round House, by Louise Erdrich.

December 21, 2012

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Harper (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 336 pages.


One of the most powerful of Erdrich’s novels about life on the Ojibwe reservation explores a teenage boy’s reaction to his mother’s vicious rape.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House deservedly won the National Book Award, a major prize for fiction in the United States for 2012.  In it, she continues to explore the people of a fictional Ojibwe reservation and the small Anglo town nearby.  She has written about a dozen novels focusing on various generations of inter-related families living here on the North Dakota plains.

The narrator of The Round House is a Native American man telling what happened one monumental summer when he was a teenager.  His stance gives readers an adult depiction of events that continue to shape him deeply.  Some of the story depicts typical antics in which he and his three friends engaged over vacation, but Joe’s story is much more than an account of his coming of age.  As the book begins, Joe’s mother has not returned home when expected.  He and his father learn of her traumatizing abduction and rape.  They and the whole community strive to restore her and to identify and catch the rapists.  Accomplishing this, however, is not the end of the matter.  Because of limitations on tribal jurisdictions, the rapist is released and Joe’s mother continues to live in fear.  And Joe continues to try to remove the blight that has fallen on his family.  In the process, the playfulness of teenagers becomes intermixed with pain and tragedy.

Erdrich is a fine writer, with the power to make her story urgent and immediate.  Her characters, male and female, are unique and interesting.  Joe’s grandfather tells old stories, grounding the present story in the past and linking it to the characters in Erdrich’s other books about the region.  At times, this book reads like exciting mystery, and then it raises deep questions of why evil happens and what our personal responsibility is.  Readers are faced with the question of whether any of us can respond to evil without awakening it within ourselves.  Is killing ever right?

Although Erdrich tells her story through a male narrator, it is fundamentally a story about rape and its consequences on the female victim, and on those who love her.  The crux of her novel is the reality that white men can and do rape Native American women with impunity because Indian courts cannot rule over crimes committed on their reservations.  In a brief afterward, Erdrich provides a factual account of the problem. According to amnesty International in 2009 one in three women on reservations reports that she has been raped, usually by white men who know they can go unpunished.  Erdrich reports that some legal changes have occurred after the 1980s, when the story was set, but the problems persist for women who are raped.

Ironically, just as I was finishing this book, I read a story in The Nation about exactly the same problem that Erdrich so graphically describes in fiction.  House Republicans are refusing to renew the Violence against Women Act.   Rep. Eric Cantor, in a move to make his party seem less harsh on women, has tried to strike a compromise, but he insists that white men not be held responsible for rape on Indian reservations and in Indian courts.

Novels focus on individuals and are seldom good vehicles for makes points about societal problems.  Erdrch, however, has done a fine job of bringing together the private and political issues, and still writing a book of real literary merit.  In Still Murder, Finola Moorhead deals with rape in manner that is eerily similar to Erdrich.  In both cases, rape raises larger questions about who is safe and what we can do—or not do—to protect those we love.  Both books also carry the practical political message that violence against women should not be ignored.

Erdrich has a Native American and a German American parent, and she was raised in the area were her books are set.  She has a deep understanding of the complexities of life on and around reservations.  An outsider could write comparable stories, but rare sensitivity and extensive research would be required.. Even then such an author would be limited to imagination, rather than the personal memories which Erdrich brings.  And she is a talented enough writer to tell the complex, and sometime unflattering, stories of those within the reservation community.  She understands how injustices in the past are still perpetrated in that community.  From this and her other books, we see how the world looks from the perspective of Ojibwe people who still suffer from those injustices. At the same time the universal issues which they face connect all readers to their plight.

I strongly recommend Round House to all readers who enjoy fast-moving, beautifully written books, especially those interested in the writings of Indigenous people in various parts of the world.

Other recommended Native American writers include Scott Momaday, Thomas King, and Leslie Silko.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 21, 2012 11:30 am

    Wonderful review! I am determined to read Louise Erdrich in 2013 – she’s been on my list for some time! I’ll also take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very Happy Christmas indeed, and a peaceful, healthy 2013. Thinking of you.

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