Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich


“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.” – Goodreads 

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a profoundly moving novel. Before I continue, however, I feel it is necessary to give you a little background information that is not only vital to the storyline but which affects so many women in this country today.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision which held that tribal governments cannot criminally prosecute non-Indians (Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe). What this breaks down to is that any non-Indian person can enter a Native American reservation, commit a crime such as rape – or even murder – and literally get away with it. While the federal government does have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute these crimes, it most often fails to do so. Native women are being stripped of their basic human rights as non-Indian sexual predators use Native American reservations to commit crimes against women for which they are basically safe from legal retribution. As recently as last year, members of Congress have voted against putting into place measures to protect Native women from these conditions (re: 2012 Violence Against Women Act).

I could go on and on, spewing statistics and further disturbing facts, but that’s not what this post is about. I want to make clear my position, however: I am disgusted, appalled, outraged that so many women are allowed to be targeted – are in fact held up on a platter – by our government. It is long past time for changes to be made. I cannot believe that these archaic laws are still in effect and that basic human rights are being denied to so many of my fellow women in this day and age. I weep for them all. I weep.

As The Round House by Louise Erdrich opens, we meet Joe Coutts: a thirteen-year-old Native boy living on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Joe’s father is a tribal judge and his mother, Geraldine, works at the tribal office, specifically with files pertaining to tribal membership. Shortly after the story begins, Joe learns that his mother has been brutally raped and taken to the hospital. After returning home to recuperate, Geraldine withdraws from her family and isolates herself., refusing to discuss any details of her attack. Joe’s father, Bazil, immerses himself in trying to secure legal assistance for the crime (because of governmental jurisdictional issues, little is being done to investigate Geraldine’s rape). Joe is left on his own, emotionally and literally. He and his three best friends – Cappy, Angus, and Zack – take it upon themselves to investigate the crime against his mother on their own.

The story is narrated by Joe. I especially coveted the easy camaraderie between Joe, Cappy, Angus and Zack – both in general, and as they work together to investigate Geraldine’s assault. It brought to mind such coming-of-age stories as Stand By Me… Erdrich does much to introduce Native life to us, touching on life on the reservation, the importance of extended family, laws (obviously), ceremonies and traditions, as well as ancient legends passed down by Joe’s great-grandfather, Mooshum. Joe’s search for truth and justice is heart-wrenching, and as clues and details are slowly revealed throughout the story a sense of excitement at solving the puzzle is created.

Louise Erdrich has a talent with language. She has a knack for bringing her characters to life – their thoughts, actions, emotions… Joe felt very real to me. Geraldine’s fear and grief was palpable. I was most impressed with this novel. I have also heard a rumor that it is apparently the second book in an alleged trilogy, the first of which is The Plauge of Doves, which stars many of the same characters in The Round House. The Round House is a novel well worth reading. It has made it’s way onto my Favorites shelf, and is probably one of the best books I have read in 2013.

5 stars, baby

Source: Lincoln City Libraries Digital Downloads

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