The Round House

Louise Erdrich

For some reason I’ve never read any Louise Erdrich novels before, so I was glad to get to The Round House and later find out that many of her books are centered around the same fictional North Dakota reservation and the community there. It’s impressive to know that this book is grounded in a well-established history, but yet it can effortlessly draw in a reader unfamiliar with any of the preceding stories.

This story is set in 1988 and is mainly told from the perspective of Joe who was then thirteen but is looking back as an adult. His mother survives a brutal attack — she is beaten and raped — but then shuts down, withdrawing and refusing to identify who attacked her. Joe’s father is a tribal judge, but even with his knowledge of the system it begins to seem that even if they can find the perpetrator, there may be no way to prosecute. The crime took place in a location where the geographic jurisdiction is unclear, as it’s the meeting place of three different pieces of land. The crux of the difficulty is centered around the very non-fictional reality that non-Indians couldn’t be charged for crimes committed on Indian reservations. This situation should improve with the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act that is being signed into law today.

Joe is at the age where he is beginning to understand more about the adult world, and alongside the story of his mother’s struggle to recover, he is also working through coming-of-age issues. Yet despite his parent’s attempts to protect him, he pushes towards whatever justice he can, in a way assuming an adult role beyond his capabilities, and this eventually teeters over the border into revenge. And revenge has its own price. Erdrich spoke on All Things Considered, saying, “Revenge is a sorrow for the person who has to take it on. And the person who is rash enough to think it’s going to help a situation is always wrong.”

I’m writing this several days after finishing the book, so I can also mention that The Round House was in the first round of The Morning News’ annual Tournament of Books, but it couldn’t beat out John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.