“The Round House”
Louise Erdrich has written a superb novel — again.
“The Round House” won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction, and deservedly so. Erdrich tells a story with finesse and mastery, taking the time to develop characters while weaving together dramatic and poignant small moments into the larger organic plot so satisfactorily that her digressions — exquisitely narrated vignettes — only serve to enhance the energy and depth of the story.
To be truthful, to call them digressions would be inaccurate, for Erdrich has depended upon what might be described as a traditional oral narrative that one finds in Native American folklore and myth, as in the Coyote tales or the Old Buffalo Woman myth she inserts in her book.
Such departures from a strict linear-logical framework expand the narrative into historical/cultural realms that exemplify the Ojibwe worldview, one replete with a stoic, practical approach to life balanced by satirical humor, rich cultural traditions, and deep spirituality.
One of the most delightful and insightful examples is the tale told by the 100-year-old Mooshum, tribal elder, sage, and comic, who imparts to Joe, Erdrich’s 13-year-old narrator, the mytho-poetic origins of the ceremonial Round House, while talking in his sleep.
However, the real power and poignancy of the book reside in Erdrich’s characterization of Joe Coutts, whose coming of age is accelerated by the sexual assault of his mother. Joe Coutts should rank with Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield as one of the most memorable boy characters in American literature.
Erdrich, in her 14th novel, shows her mastery in depicting the emotional and intellectual undulations of a boy coming of age: gradually and subtly, a boy still, but pulsing with mature insights.
At the scene of the mother’s attack, for example, Joe, distraught while trying to visualize the details, begins to cry: “… tears started into my eyes. I let them flood down my cheeks. Nobody was there to see me, so I did not even wipe them away. I stood there in the shadow doorway thinking with my tears. Yes, tears can be thoughts, why not?”
The most poignant examples of his growth involve the changes in his relationship from adolescent to young adult with his father and traumatized mother, both of whom frustrate and inspire him to take action.
Similarly, there is his “aunt” Sonja, an ex-stripper whom he loves and lusts for, not so secretly. Not least of all, there are his three buddies, Zack, Angus, and his best friend, the more experienced ring-leader and role model Cappy, with whom Joe enters the investigation of the crime.
In addition to the rich array of Native American characters, Erdrich has drawn a diverse group of white figures — from the “magnetically ugly” yet endearing Linda Lark Wishkob to her evil twin brother Linden Lark, to Father Travis, an ex-marine turned priest whose epic chase of Cappy earns the respect of the entire reservation.
The best fiction is true to life, and Erdrich has condensed in her novel the many cases of Native women raped and sexually assaulted without justice being served. As she states in her afterward, “The book is set in 1988, but the tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations still exists.”
In short, “The Round House” is a must read — twice at least. It’s a superlative testimony to Louise Erdrich’s prowess and stature as one of our great American writers.
Burt Bradley is a writer and associate professor of English at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo.