The Round House

Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

My father could out-weather anybody. Like people anywhere, there were times when it was the only topic where people here felt comfortably expressive, and my father could go on earnestly, seemingly forever. When the current weather was exhausted, there was all the weather that had occurred in recorded history, weather lived through or witnessed by a relative, or even heard about on the news. Catastrophic weather of all types. And when that was done with, there was all the weather that might possibly occur in the future. I’d even heard him speculate about weather in the afterlife.

                        from  The Round House


Coming of age, and other mysteries

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, winner of the National Book Award, is one of those occasional novels that can be classified both as “commercial fiction” (fast-paced, strong narrative, action) and “literary fiction” (complex, literate, multilayered, and “serious”.)

The narrator is 13-year old Joe Coutts, living on an Ojibwe reservation with his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, and his mother, Geraldine, who works as a kind of social worker and whose job is “to know everybody’s secrets” on the reservation.

The novel begins with the brutal assault on Joe’s mother in the Round House, a sacred place of worship for their people. Severely traumatized, Geraldine withdraws into herself, unable—or unwilling—to say who attacked her and why.

Emotionally shut out by his mother, frustrated that the police are turning up no clues, Joe begins his own investigation, assisted by his friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus.

The austerity and strain of life on a North Dakota reservation provides the backdrop for the story, highlighting the poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, and tense, mutually mistrusting relations between the whites and the “rez Indians”—“Just yesterday a white guy asked me if I was a real Indian. No, I said…The real Indians are in India. I’m a genuine Chippewa.”

A number of reviewers have compared The Round House favorably to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—there is the complex adult world seen through the eyes of a young person, the father as a good and decent man, issues of racism and justice (“Any judge knows there are many kinds of justice—for instance, ideal justice as opposed to the best-we-can-do justice.”)

The mystery of what happened in the Round House drives the narrative. But this is also a coming-of-age story, and amid its bleakness and intensity, there are some very funny scenes: Cappy goes to confession, where he admits to Father Travis that he had sexual relations with a girl…from the visiting Youth Encounter Christ group…inside Father’s church. Joe watches as Cappy comes tearing out of the confessional, running for his life, as Father Travis, an ex-Marine and very fit, chases him throughout the reservation, intent on throttling the boy.

Eventually, Joe and his friends will uncover the truth of the Round House, but will find little comfort in it—“I couldn’t tell anyone. Even I didn’t want to know what I knew”—and learn that the pursuit of truth must sometimes settle for the best-we-can-do kind of justice.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.