Review: Erdrich tells story of 'The Round House' with finesse, mastery

2013-09-29T00:00:00Z Review: Erdrich tells story of 'The Round House' with finesse, masteryBy BURT BRADLEY For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
September 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

“The Round House”

Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins

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.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More from the Gazette

Bookmobile

January 25, 2015 12:00 amLoading…
New novel explores Van Gogh's silent period

New novel explores Van Gogh's silent period

January 25, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

January 18, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

January 11, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Local literature: A few exciting reads by Helena authors

January 04, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

January 04, 2015 12:00 amLoading…
Try these exciting reads by Helena authors

Try these exciting reads by Helena authors

January 04, 2015 12:00 am Photos

Photos

Loading…

Bookmobile

December 28, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
Review: 'Five' by Ursula Archer is intriguing

Review: 'Five' by Ursula Archer is intriguing

December 28, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

December 21, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
'Killer Heels' looks at the history of high heels

'Killer Heels' looks at the history of high heels

December 21, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

December 14, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
Jerry Lee Lewis: Sustained by brief blaze of glory

Jerry Lee Lewis: Sustained by brief blaze of glory

December 14, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
First Alice Munro collection since Nobel Prize

First Alice Munro collection since Nobel Prize

December 08, 2014 8:41 amLoading…

Bookmobile

December 07, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
'Midnight in Siberia' looks at Russia today

'Midnight in Siberia' looks at Russia today

December 07, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Writers Roundup returns to Shrine on Saturday

December 02, 2014 10:15 amLoading…
Baldacci's new novel thrills — and tugs at heart

Baldacci's new novel thrills — and tugs at heart

November 30, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

November 30, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Follow Enjoy

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Deals & Offers

Featured Businesses