The Round House, A Review

Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation.
— Louise Erdrich, The Round House
The Round House: A Novel
By Louise Erdrich

In Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, this beginning line poignantly introduces the unraveling of a family by one evil act that was compounded by years of judicial abuse by the United States government. The Round House follows a thirteen year-old boy named Joe Coutts, the son of a mom who is a tribal records-keeper and a father who is a tribal judge. Joe attempts to juggle adolescence with the vicious sexual attack that scarred his mother physically and emotionally. Erdrich writes such visceral descriptions throughout The Round House that immediately draws the reader into the pain the family experiences.

At its heart, this is a story of adolescence and struggle. Yet The Round House also dwells on the political problems associated with the United States and the concept of tribal sovereignty found within these American borders. The first chapter opens up with a fast paced search for the missing mother: an absence that "stopped time" for Joe and his father. When they do find the mother, Joe's father immediately understands what happened to her while Joe takes time to discover the horror. The mother is a bloody mess and disoriented even as she drove home from her attack. However, it takes a quick meeting with a racist woman in a hospital to reveal the nature of his mother's attack to Joe and the readers. After this revelation, readers are led through eleven chapters of heart-ache and turmoil with the always present native humor thrown in at key moments.

Erdrich is quickly becoming my favorite writer. Her descriptions are so realistic and poetic and at the same time she can masterfully keep a story flowing while hanging suspense in the air. There were religious undertones that flowed throughout the book, but only insomuch as a critique of Christianity among tribal peoples. The priest and other churchgoers in the novel seem insincere in their religious beliefs and are summed up in the boys’ paranoid conversion to Catholicism later in the book to avoid getting into trouble. Spirituality, however, is never far from Indians and traditional spirituality is sprinkled throughout the book as well.

Despite the pain of having his mother go through such a horrendous action, Joe still has to navigate the problems of a teenager on the rez. He has his lusts and his missteps. He has his crazy friends who get him into trouble and out of trouble just as fast. And Joe's family, though dysfunctional, does more good than harm even if it’s barely one notch more of good on the scale. Joe's friends help him navigate the pain of his mother's experience and accompany him in visiting the crime scene and trying to figure out who is responsible. Joe, along with the reader, finds comfort in those friends and their loyalty.

Joe is highly protective over his mother and his friends are by his side as family willing to take vengeance in their own hands. Joe's father on the other hand fights to uphold the dignity of the law and attempts to ensure the law prevails in his wife's attack. Both Joe and his father have wonderful times of bonding and times of dissension in how they see justice. In their discussions, I found a great account of the dichotomy of justice through the courts and justice at the hands of the people. This dichotomy is very relevant today with the recent news of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The news flashes competing stories of those who believe rioting is the answer to injustice and others who believe in some form of the law. However, with the Eric Garner case, we see American’s trust in the law to be waning.

The ending of the book fit well in the story with this tension of what justice is. The act against Joe's mother was terrible and the justice brought on at the end appears to fit the crime. The justice at the end of the novel sought to take a life of the one who stole life from another. Technically, the villain in the story did not kill the mother. However, he stole her life as his actions will last forever.

The novel had a clear conclusion while still leaving so much more to be thought out. I don't see how a family that went through all this family did could ever move on. There will be moments of happiness, yes, but an overall remembrance of these events in the novel make moving on impossible. How does one overcome PTSD? Can anyone actually overcome PTSD or do they just learn to cope? We have no answers from the book. All we have is a primal satisfaction with the justice that was dealt out at the end.

Erdrich wrote an incredibly moving novel that flowed well and was interesting throughout. Even the legal discussions were enough to explain the terrible precedents the United States government implemented destroying tribal sovereignty without going so deep as to lose the reader. Joe is the focal point of this story and his story remains primary even though the attack on the mother is so prevalent throughout the novel. Joe gets into plenty of messes as any teenager does, but also has to grow up faster than most. Kids on the rez already have to grow up at a faster rate than other kids, but Joe's thirteenth year of life saw his maturity grow immensely more than usual for a rez kid.

The Round House is encouraging in its struggles. Of course, one wishes that stories like this would never occur, yet we see the resilience of Joe's family and native America as a whole throughout the novel. Erdrich's work is brilliant and a reminder of the abuse that many native women experience on the rez year after year. We wish stories like this never happen, but we cannot ignore the reality that informed this novel. Erdrich masterfully reveals the pain of the indigenous women who are sexually abused every day and shows the effects their abuse has not only on the woman and her family, but on a whole tribe. Louise Erdrich showed us this reality in her novel The Round House and the only questions I can think of are: What are we as readers going to do about it? What are we as native peoples going to do about it?


ReviewSteve Dragswolf