The Round House by Louise Erdrich

21st May 2013

the round house louise erdrich

The Round House is the fourteenth novel by Louise Erdrich, the Minneapolis-based author often praised for her authentic depiction of Native American life. First published in the US in 2012, The Round House scooped the prestigious National Book Award for fiction.

The Round House is set on a North Dakota reservation in 1988, where 13 year-old Joe Coutts and his father, Bazil – an Indian tribal judge – are facing a family crisis, following the brutal rape of Joe’s mother, Geraldine.

Their pursuit of justice is thwarted by Geraldine’s unwillingness to identify her attacker, and her uncertainty as to where the crime took place – on native or non-native ground, a factor which has complex legal implications.

Joe’s circle of friends includes Cappy, and the chapters detailing their efforts to find evidence on the reservation – including trawls of lake and woodland – evoke nostalgia for a less regulated time, while their run-ins with a tough-minded Catholic priest, Father Travis, and Joe’s hopeless crush on his sexy aunt Sonja, provide light relief.

Linda Wishkob, a white woman rejected by her family and adopted into the reservation, is perhaps the most intriguing character. Joe’s grandfather Mooshum, meanwhile, brings a tribal elder’s insight.

Over the course of a summer vacation, Joe – haunted by strange dreams and ghostly visitations – comes to view his mother’s rapist in terms of Ojibwe (or Chippewa) law, as a ‘wiindigoo’; a man who becomes possessed by an animal spirit that sees fellow humans as prey.

The Round House has been dubbed a Native American To Kill a MockingbirdJoe is drawn to the Catholic doctrine of ‘sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance’, but Father Travis warns him against retribution, saying that ‘everything out in the world is also in you.’

Frustrated by the impotence of the legal system, Joe tells his father, ‘All you catch are drunks and hot dog thieves.’ But, as Bazil explains, ‘What I am doing now is for the future …’

Several of the characters, and the reservation itself, will be familiar to readers of Erdrich’s work. But where her previous novels have often employed multiple narrative threads, The Round House is mostly told from Joe’s perspective, with sporadic digressions into Indian myth, and the dark world of his antagonist. This makes it, arguably, one of her most accessible books.

However, Erdrich has not entirely abandoned stylistic innovation: rather than relying on her usual devices, here she dispenses with quotation marks – perhaps to indicate a shared consciousness, or else to reflect shifting identities.   

Combining aspects of crime fiction and the coming-of-age novel, it’s perhaps unsurprising that The Round House has been dubbed a Native American To Kill a Mockingbird. But Erdrich’s vision is bleaker than Harper Lee’s: the injustice here is even closer to home, and innocence, once lost, can never be fully regained.

In an afterword, Erdrich refers to a 2009 report by Amnesty International, which revealed that 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetime (based on reported rapes); that the majority of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Native men, and few result in prosecution.

While The Round House may lack some of the vibrancy of Erdrich’s early novels, it more than compensates with a sombre clarity and deserves to be ranked with her finest work.

The Round House was published in hardback by Corsair on May 16th  and is available from Foyles, Amazon, or good independent bookshops, priced at £17.99. An ebook version is also available, priced at £6.99.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: readers of contemporary American literature with an interest in women’s issues and indigenous cultures

Other recommended reading: Also by Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen and Tracks; or try Ceremony, the acclaimed 1979 debut by another Native author, Leslie Marmon Silko.

Tara Hanks