Trade Paperback, P.S. Series; 368 pages
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 because 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, 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.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich is set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in 1988. Joe Coutts is a 13 year-old boy whose mother Geraldine is brutally beaten and raped in the reservation's Round House, a place of worship for the Ojibwe. His father, Bazil is a tribal judge. The crime and physical and emotional ramifications of the attack are devastating enough, but finding the guilty party and bringing him to justice is a different matter. Because Geraldine is unclear on exactly what part of the land surrounding the Round House the crime occurred, Bazil ensures that the tribal police, state sheriff and FBI are all called in to interview Geraldine and, hopefully, collect evidence. The overwhelming problem is that there is tribal, state, and federal land all intersecting at this location and where the crime occurred determines the jurisdiction involved. Adding to this quagmire, the attack could have stemmed from a court case Bazil heard or be related to Geraldine's job managing tribal enrollment. As Joe watches his mother sink further into depression and his father struggle with trying to determine who could be a suspect, he decides, along with his friends, to take the law into his own hands and look for clues as to who committed the crime.
In The Round House, Erdrich combines a coming of age story with a crime novel full of suspense. At the beginning we meet Joe before the attack and follow along as his childhood abruptly ends and he is mercilessly forced into adulthood as he and his father deal with the knowledge that the attacking was planning to kill Geraldine and doubt that the attacker will face justice because of the murky question of jurisdiction, the "Maze of Injustice," that still exists. Joe struggles with both is helplessness and anger over this impossible situation.
Joe and his friends are typical young teen boys, so there are occasions of sneaking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, and they also watch and relate to TV shows of the era. Eldrich includes a wide variety of relatives and people in her cast of characters and gives each of them an individual voice and personality. Her characters have a universal presence but also reflect specific people. It is this very ability to present a universal story but imbibe it with specific characters and circumstances that enables The Round House to create such an emotional, visceral impact on the reader.
Although I may not live on a reservation or be faced with some of the harsh realities the Coutts face, I can empathize with them because of the universality of the themes. In the Afterword, Erdrich tells us that "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted." This statistic is unacceptable (as all assaults upon women are unacceptable and inexcusable).
Erdrich, an accomplished and gifted writer, first introduced the North Dakota Ojibwe community in her The Plague of Doves published in 2008, and there will be a third part of this planned trilogy released in the future. The Round House is the winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. The Round House is not an easy book to read emotionally. It also contains some adult discussions and several stories of ghosts and cultural stories/myths.