Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Round House

by Louise Erdrich
Harper     2012
317 pages     Fiction.

This is a book about the rape of Joe's mother and the way thirteen-year-old Joe helps his father find the rapist and bring him to justice. At its heart, it is a very sad story.

But before you put the thought of reading The Round House aside because you "don't want to read a sad book," let me say that this book is subtly profound, that it deals with difficult topics compellingly, and that the protagonist and narrator, Joe, is a 13-year-old detective "par excellence." The book has it all--a page-turning plot, some extremely humorous moments, and a moral dilemma that causes the reader to ponder the meaning of justice long after the book is done.

Many of Erdrich's books are set on an Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota. Erdrich, herself, is Ojibwa. This is territory that most of us know little about, and Erdrich teaches us about life on the reservation without didacticism. The NPR reviewer says the Erdrich has "created for us the keenly made story of a peculiar history, in an out of the way part of our continent, that touches on the hearts and souls of us all." The theme of this particular book is violence against Native American women and the rule of law on the reservation and how it collides with federal and state law. The plot is interwoven with fascinating characters, scenes of daily reservation life, a pow wow, and an old grandpa telling Ojibwa legends. Teenage boys snack on fry bread, grandmas tell bawdy stories, and a loving family deals with personal tragedy.

Joe is a vivid character as are his buddies and their families. When his mother, Geraldine, is raped, Joe is forced to grow up in unanticipated ways. Bazil, Joe's father, is a tribal judge, and he includes Joe in his detective work. By telling Joe about the rape, he puts a layer of maturity on the boy, which Joe then passes on to his friends, particularly Cappy his best friend. The boys bike madly all over the reservation as they solve the crime--mostly behind the backs of their parents. Some of their sleuthing is humorous; some is extremely dangerous. Their concept of justice is immature, like their years, but the ramifications of the justice they exact follows Joe into adulthood. (He is narrating the story as an adult--a tribal judge like his father.)

The novel's subplots are as fascinating as the detective story. It is evident by the way Erdrich weaves the stories together that we are putty in the hands of a master storyteller. Sometimes, I had to stop reading just to come up for air--it was so intense that I couldn't read any further. Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House, and it is well deserved. The illustration in the New York Times review very aptly conveys the intensity of the novel.

Familial love is one of the themes of The Round House.  Bazil loves Geraldine and is extremely patient with her suffering following the rape. By his loving example, he shows Joe how a woman should be treated, rather than the way his mother was treated. Bazil is similar in many ways to Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, and the reader has the same warm feeling toward him that we have to Atticus. He is a just man caught in a very unjust situation. 

I liked the way the reviewer in the Washington Times began his piece about The Round House. "Novelists who can create vivid, plausible, living characters are rare, but novelists who also can create a believable world and a compelling story for those characters are blessed. Louise Erdrich is blessed."

Erdrich says in an interview that she wrote the last paragraph of the book after she had written about half of the book. After she wrote the last paragraph, she put her head in her hands and wept. I did the same. 

The family always stopped for ice cream on their way home from a trip, but on the last trip in The Round House they did not stop. "We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going." The "sweep of sorrow" that assails the reader's heart in this poignant coming of age story goes on long after the book is finished. Indeed, the very last sentence of the book, "We just kept going," is a small affirmation that life goes on, people survive tragedy, and hope is ever present in the human soul.

The NPR review, which by the way gives a good summary of the book:

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