Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

Book Description: National Book Award Winner

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

Written with undeniable urgency, and illuminating the harsh realities of contemporary life in a community where Ojibwe and white live uneasily together, The Round House is a brilliant and entertaining novel, a masterpiece of literary fiction. Louise Erdrich embraces tragedy, the comic, a spirit world very much present in the lives of her all-too-human characters, and a tale of injustice that is, unfortunately, an authentic reflection of what happens in our own world today.


My thoughts: There are a number of themes that resound throughout this book. Each is difficult to approach yet the author seems to do so with near ease. In some instances, quietly and I found myself having to return to passages to say, "Ohhhh."

First and foremost is the crime itself. Told through Joe in retrospect, he relates the summer when his mother is brutally raped and escapes death. The real story is that the current laws are not written to prosecute non Native Americans on tribal land. Also, laws differ according to what land the crime occurred. Federal, Tribal Trust, state or whatever.

As the details unfold, the reader is also included in Joe's adolescent life. This includes some incredibly lewd, crude, and offensive 13 year old thoughts and activity. That said, it is not always obvious but rather stealthily stated much of the time. There is a grandma who takes every opportunity and twist of the tongue to shock and embarrass the boys. She is typically overt. Then there is Mooshum who is 103 who mildly asks Whitehead about Sonja, Whitey's woman. What does she do at the gas station. Whitey explains how she washes the windows. No detail added but the author quietly inserts the imaginings of this fine woman who is a former stripped and the males sighs of appreciation in their window washing fantasies.

The humor is palpable. Nuggets on nearly every page. Far too many to quote. Some authors try too hard to drive humor or other points into the reader. Instead, I had no idea what was coming up next. Joe is easily sitting with his grandfather at his birthday party, listening to Grandma Ignatia and Mooshum recall their former spouses like they are discussing the weather. Just as easily, the huge sheet cake is carried out with over 100 burning candles. Mooshum needs to make a wish and seems just about to when the reader is reminded that the icing is infused with whiskey as a breeze kicks up and swallows the cake and Mooshum's centennial self in a surprise inferno which is quickly and unceremoniously put out.

Another theme is the simplicity of the stock we place in the reliability of family. My first introduction to this simple yet powerful prose:

"Women don't realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on our evening."

This is a powerful book yet dragged at some moments yet I was afraid to skim lest I miss an important clue. It is understated yet the understanding of different humans at different stages and most especially a 13 year old boy provide insight and extreme humor.

"It hurts Cappy tapped his chest and whispered, right here."

Not a book to be read by children. The extremely innocent will, however miss much of the lewdness. It is that understated. Yet be forewarned of language, dialogue, and disturbing subject matter. Overhanging all of the book is that Joe's mother was brutally attacked and violated. Interspersed are Indian legends and stories, case laws and hilarious antics.

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