The Round House digs deep into unearthing the very nature of justice in a world that is rarely just and seldom fair.
Our narrator - an Ojibwe lawyer named Joe Coutts - recalls his 13th summer from the perspective of time. Joe's position as the only child of tribal judge Bazil Coutts and tribal clerk Geraldine Coutts kept him feeling loved and secure until his mother is brutally and sadistically raped as she attempts to retrieve a potentially damning file. Although the rapist is rather quickly identified, the location of the rape--in the vicinity of a sacred round house - lies within that "no-man's land" where tribal courts are in charge and the neighboring Caucasians cannot be prosecuted, no matter how heinous the crime. Thrust into an adult world, Joe and his best friends Cappy, Zack and Angus are propelled to seek their own answers.
This novel shines for many reasons, particularly because of the urgency and power of the descriptions. The aftermath of the rape is described in unflinching and dynamic prose - no manipulation, and no turning away. One of the ancillary yet important characters - the damaged and conflicted Father Travis, a war veteran - is so beautifully and powerfully fleshed out that it is impossible to not be riveted to the page. Each character, in fact, is realistically drawn, complete with the ambiguities that reside in each of us.
This is a finely nuanced novel that, like a Rubik's cube, examines violence and our responsibilities in a number of ways. One of them is through the prism of religion: the Roman Catholic belief that every evil ultimately can be transfigured to good as opposed to tribal justice traditions. Ms. Erdrich ties in a tale about a "wiindigoo" or evil spirit, which makes a person "become an animal, and see fellow humans as meat." In instances like this, the destruction of the wiindigoo is the only possible answer.
Throughout, Ms. Erdrich uses symmetry as she contrasts one belief to the other. the contrast of ideal justice versus best-we-can-do justice. Past beliefs versus contemporary realities. The dark and the light that reside in each of us. And perhaps most glaringly, the "bad twin" and his spiritually generous twin, named - appropriately - Linden and Linda, two sides of a coin.(Interestingly, within these personas, evil is portrayed as seductive and attractive and good is physically ugly and needy. All is not what it appears on the surface, the author appears to say).
I have not read much of Louise Erdrich before, so I cannot contrast this book with those that came before it. I will say this: it is unlikely to recede from my mind anytime soon.
Author Louise Erdrich, a member of the Chippewa (Ojibwa) nation, here writes one of her most powerful and emotionally involving novels. Though it starts as a crime story on the reservation, it quickly becomes an intense search for justice on all levels. It is also an examination of the lives of her characters, both old and young, as they face the challenges of reservation life. Their lives, as she shows in this novel, are seriously restricted by 1988, when this novel's action takes place, and any Native American who wants to honor the "old ways" on the reservation must now survive on infertile lands which cannot support him. Their culture has been seriously compromised by the arrival of Catholic missionaries who have weaned them away from their myths and traditions. Significantly, legal jurisdiction over crimes involving Native Americans now involves tribal officials, state police, and even the FBI.
In a powerful opening scene, filled with symbols and portents, thirteen-year-old Antone Basil Coutts (Joe), only child and namesake of Judge Coutts and his wife Geraldine, is helping his father to pull tiny seedlings from cracks in the foundation of their house, awaiting Geraldine's return from her office. When she finally arrives at home, she is almost unrecognizable, so badly beaten she can hardly see, reeking of gasoline and so traumatized by rape and other crimes that she has become mute. Young Joe knows that it will be up to him and his father to identify who has done this. They begin to study his father's old cases searching clues.
Joe is still a child, however, and though his empathetic father wants to protect him as much as possible, Joe becomes obsessed with getting his mother "back," determined to find and punish the rapist on his own. These tensions add drama and meaning to the novel, and Joe's contacts with others, both in his family and outside it, expand the scope. The sweat lodge ceremony is described, the extortion of elderly Indians by a white-owned supermarket on Indian land is detailed, the raucous and sexy (and hilarious) talk of elderly family members is recorded, the "flirting" of a stripper living with Joe's uncle is tension-filled and emotional, the appearance of ghosts to Joe, and the efforts of a local priest, a former soldier injured in Lebanon in 1983, are all described to powerful effect, keeping the interest and involvement of the reader at high pitch.
As in her other novels, Erdrich provides a sense of continuity by including characters from other books in this one - including the priestly Nanapush (from Tracks), who was an inspiration to Mooshum, thought now to be one hundred six years old in this novel. Mooshum, whose story is told here, was also a main character in The Plague of Doves, a book which also includes Judge Antone Basil Coutts, father of this novel's main character Joe, and Corwin Peace, father of Joe's friend Zach. By repeating these characters through successive generations, Erdrich provides a genealogy and sense of history which add to the sense of time and place, and highlight the changes, not all of them good, taking place within the community. The novel, one of Erdrich's best, will keep serious readers totally engaged with its sensitive descriptions and insights, even as those interested in just a "good story" will celebrate the action, excitement, and the issues it raises.
The Round House takes the reader back to an Indian reservation in North Dakota in1988. Thirteen year-old Joe Coutts lives with his father, a tribal judge and his mother, a records clerk on the Ojibwe reservation, a job which required her to "know everyone's business". One Sunday afternoon as Joe and his father were pulling weeds from the garden the mother mother, Geraldine heads out to her office to retrieve a high profile file. When she doesn't return by the time dinner time approaches, father and son become concerned and prepare to go look for her. They find her stunned, beaten and bleeding and smelling of gasoline, yet sitting in her car in the driveway of their home.
Who attacked her, and why isn't Geraldine willing to talk about her attack? Why are things so secretive and why isn't Joe told something about the attack at least? Of course bit by bit information about the attack, where it happened or who might be responsible is slowly shared behind the scenes, but from the perspective of Joe, the thirteen year old narrator, all he sees is his once happy and active mother holed up in her room, spiraling into a deep depression and afraid to even leave her room. "Her eyes were black pits...." Joe feels helpless and is not sure what he can to to make his mother feel safe again. Joe has an idea and enlists the help of his buddies, Cappy, Zack and Angus in trying to find out who attacked his mother and plotting what they feel would be appropriate revenge.
Although the theme of this novel is a dark one and one might think it would make for a depressing read, that is not the case. There is so much to hold the readers interest in this story. From the element of mystery with the attack, the adolescent antics of Joe and his friends as they try to find out about the attacker, and the Indian folklore of ghost and ancient myths shared by the elders made this a page turner. The pacing and the way the author took the edge off what could have been too much tension and a depressing story, ended up anything but, in my opinion. Although I thought the ending was a bit abrupt, I was more than satisfied by this novel, and plan to continue reading more by this author.
In Round House, we are taken to the world of the reservation through the eyes of Joe. His father is a Justice and his mother works the census, thus knowing the secrets of the world around them. When his mother is brutally raped, Joe roams his world seeking to find a way to return his mother to the world of the living and protect her. He and his best friend Cappy come to understand what passes for justice on the reservation. On his search, we are taught the inner world of spirituality that he inhabits and the adults teach and reveal to him. From his family he learns the basis of his moral code, and a priest describes the sins that cry out to heaven for justice.
Enrich uses details to paint this world. Adults remember the first Birkenstocks seen on the reservation. Joe and his friends locate a stash of Hamm's beer and try to determine what type of person left that brand. The houses are so clearly described, we can envision ourselves walking into them.
The people who live here are also vivid to our minds. Their clothing and their walks reveal themselves to the reader.
These characters are diverse and open to our hearts. Erdrich builds a masterful novel which is well worth the read. When it ends, we blink our eyes startled to return to our chairs.
Two themes that are interwoven at the same time.
A poignant story of interlocking themes which leaves one wondering until close to the end who did it and why!
First we have the story of a 1988 rape and why it happened plus the story of a young Indian boy and his friends coming of age in 1988 on an Indian Reservation in Hoopdance,ND.
This whole sequence of events is told in the voice of the 13yo voice of the rape victim's son, who only wants his life to return to the way it was before his mother was raped. In other words - innocence preserved.
Some of the most humorous moments are depicted in the storytelling of the HORNY old grandmother named Ignatia Thunder and her recollections of paramours recent and distant. Her depictions of their attributes both large and smalll are a secondary thrill to the overall story. Grandma Thunder is most distant from any Grandma any of us has ever known. :)
Yet the primary story focuses on Antone Bazil, Jr. aka - Joe and his buddies Zack, Cappy, and Angus plus his desire for revenge on whomever violated his mother.
With a major and subplot this is a story highly recommended for those interested in coming of age and Native American themed stories as am I.
on November 16, 2012
I have to say, at the very least this book gets in your head. There were moments early on when I couldn't put the book down, and then once I got toward the middle I had an incredibly easy time putting the book down. It would be disingenuous to say the book dragged at any point because that's not quite what happened (at least I don't think so). Rather, the book started to get more complex, and as it grew more complex, it was easy to forget about the main conflict in the story. I'd become so engrossed in the main conflict that when the story started moving around a bit more than I was expecting, it jarred me out of my trance. I was lost, and it took a fair bit of concentration to work through the remaining pages.
That isn't to say this isn't a very good book, of course. It is. And it was great to spend a little more time with some of the characters from Erdrich's "Plague of Doves" (my favorite of her novels).
In 1988, Geraldine Coutts gets a phone call telling her to go to the Round House on her reservation. There she is raped and beaten. With her is a young woman named Mayla and Mayla's little girl. The story of their ordeal is slowly revealed in this compelling novel.
Geraldine's husband is the head judge of the Ojibwe nation in North Dakota. He and Geraldine have a son named Joe who is slowly placed in the role of parental child as his mother retreats more and more into herself and does not leave her bedroom. She is suffering from depression and trauma that separates herself from the rest of the world.
Who is responsible for this crime in the criminal justice system - the white criminal system or the Indian system? This comes into question time and time again.
Joe relies more and more on his closest friends - Cappy, Zack and Angus - for support. His father is emotionally distant and his mother is gone from him completely as she stays in her darkened room in silence.
This is one of Erdrich's stronger books. It is heavy and intense with with some lightness of spirit to offset the intensity.
on November 9, 2012
Nobody likes losing their innocence after the fact, and this story is all about that. Having just retired as an elementary teacher, and looking forward to seeing things through eyes of former students, I was shocked senseless by the starkness of how things in the story played out for the main characters. Only the love of family and friends provides escape from dire consequences. This book is no walk in the park, and I can't recommend it as YA reading due to its graphic content, but I am glad I read it. It reminds us (that need reminding) that there are a lot of people who are still looking for justice.
Also, I appreciated the lack of quotes. For me, narrative stories read so much better without them, although it takes some practice to get used to it.
Update, Dec. 21: Well, it's really hard for me to think, with the failure of Congress to even allow the Violence Against Women Act to come to a vote, that this book is too violent for youth. With certain congressmen being called the patron saints of rapists because of their opposition to the Native component of the law, I have come 180º around. This issue, so sadly politicized by lawmakers, absolutely needs to be discussed in classrooms, in homes, in churches, in any place where people gather together. I am humbled by the gift of this book to the people.
on December 30, 2012
I finished "The Round House" last night, in a setting that was noisy and distracting, and I could not put the book down. As I read the reviews, I am struck by some of the negative reviews about the plot lines, characters, and setting. I love Louise Erdrich's books because their depth and complexity provides the reader an opportunity to step into a richly constructed world that most of us never lived first-hand. We have the opportunity to learn about the people, food, landscapes, conversations, and labor of her characters. It adds to my life because I have the chance to begin to understand some of the challenges and joys of people born into cultures and traditions very different from my own, with languages soon to be lost in the United States. Yes, you must pay attention and read mindfully. Occasionally, I look back to clear up a question or remind myself of a character. In some of her other books, there are character lists in the front to use as a reference. However, I did not find it difficult to read, nor did I lose track of the plots or get bored at any time. This is literature that affords readers a pacing and style so fitting to the setting. There are other novels to choose if you are looking to escape the world and find entertainment through less active reading. I found "The Round House" thrilling, captivating, gripping, richly inviting, and moving. Yes, I learned something. I hope that does not scare anyone away. Once I began, I had a terrible time putting it down. Here is my true confession: I am a white, middle class woman, with no background in the world of American Indians, and I absolutely love Erdrich's books. I love the way she challenges her readers and am very moved by her characters, their struggles, celebrations, and tragedies. If you are considering reading this book, I highly recommend it and suggest that perhaps it is best read slowly and thoughtfully, matching the pace of the setting. I found it not only rewarding to read, but important to read.
on November 4, 2012
I want to address the issue raised by a couple of people--the lack of quotation marks for direct speech. Get use to it because more and more writers are eliminating them. The first time I read a novel--or maybe it was a short story--without them, I too was a little frustrated. But this is what I have discovered: we don't need them if the writer writes skillfully enough.
The plot of this novel I really like. But I have a problem with a lot of first person narrators. For me Harper Lee set the standard. Joe is looking back at what happened to his mother when he was a 13-year-old living on a reservation in North Dakota. She is raped, a woman who deals with the demographics of who is and who is not a Native American. Joe's father is a judge for the reservation. And the issue regarding the rape is who has jurisdiction, the reservation or the United States, apparently not an uncommon problem. That part I like.
However, Louise Erdrich seems to want to show just how much she knows about Indian ways and often takes the reader off on tangents that have little to do with the plot. There is a birthday party for Joe's elderly grandfather. At the party his friend, an old Indian woman who has been married several times tells about her sexual experiences in language that just is not believable, almost pornographic. I am not offended by it, but somehow in this novel it just seemed out of place, seemed so unnecessary. And that isn't the only example of when I found the novelist to be wandering. Some of these might easily have been used in short stories.
I usually read a novel rather fast, but this is one of those that was slow going because it wandered. But I got through it and will give it, at most, a three star review. And I have decided that I will avoid more Louis Erdrich novels. This is the first one I have been able to finish.