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The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Round House

planetnomad5, January 31, 2013

Joe has just turned 13 in the summer of 1988, on a hot Sunday afternoon during which his father takes a nap and he sits and reads his father’s law book. When they realize that Geraldine, Joe’s mother, hasn’t come home, they are both unnerved. She arrives home and can’t get out of her car, sitting frozen and shaken. She’s covered in blood and urine and reeking of gasoline, refusing to speak, except to make sure Joe knows she’s okay. However she is obviously not okay. Once home from the hospital, she takes to her bed and refuses to leave it, slipping away from them into her own dark place. Frantic with worry, her husband and son turn to each other and away from each other in the manner of all people when tragedy strikes. Joe finds himself increasingly alone, wanting desperately to return his family to how they were before the attack, taking on a parental role and seeking to protect his mother and even his father from further harm of any kind.
Her attack rips open the small tight-knit Ojibwe community, located on the edge of the “rez” where people interact with various white landowners and shopkeepers. As Joe begins to search for answers, he learns new questions as long-forgotten resentments and past sins begin to bubble to the surface. His mother is in charge of the tribal census and his father is a Judge and they obviously know or suspect more than they’re telling him. He’s a teenage boy, and he and his 3 close friends get into all sorts of trouble as they come up with improbable ideas and explore them. He identifies the place of the attack, the Round House, which is a spiritual and cultural center for his people, and he begins to hear more of the origins of the building from his grandfather.
Geraldine’s attacker put a bag over her head, and she isn’t sure whether the rape took place on tribal land or federal land. The law is different in each case, and even though she identifies her rapist and there is a clear-cut case against him, he is released from prison because Indians don’t have the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on their land. If she can’t prove it was non-tribal land, she has no case against him. Geraldine wonders herself why she doesn’t lie, claim to have identified the land as non-tribal, but she can’t--her husband and child would know she was lying. And even though they would forgive her and support her, she clings to her integrity. A local priest describes sins that “cry out to Heaven for justice,” and the phrase resonates like a bell, and gives Joe both the direction he seeks and justification for what he feels is right.
In many ways, this is a coming of age story. We enter into the heads of Joe and his close friends/cousins Cappy, Angus and Zack, into their loves and lusts and dreams. They sneak around behind their parents’ backs, ride their bikes for miles, even steal a car at one point. They’re pain-filled and pain-free, invincible, heart-broken and lost all in one. But, you feel, as long as they have each other, they’ll survive. There are many comic touches, as Erdrich’s deft touch with dialogue and character brings people to life.
The Round House is exquisitely written. I read a LOT of books, and this one really stood out for me--one of our best writers, writing at the top of her form. Highly, highly recommended.
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