the round houseIn 1988 thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts learns that his mother, Geraldine, has been brutally raped near the old round house on their North Dakota reservation. Geraldine tries to carry on but plunges into a deep depression. She knows who is responsible for her attack but for some reason refuses to talk about it. Despite Geraldine’s fears, Joe and his father, Bazil, try to find the culprit. But crimes committed near Indian reservations have their own unique set of difficulties. Is it a case for tribal police, state troopers, or local officers? Where a crime is committed can make all the difference to how justice is sought. Geraldine knows her attack took place near the round house but she was blindfolded, she never saw exactly where she was. This ambiguity allows countless criminals to get away on technicalities, and sometimes the only justice anyone can get is vengeance.

The Round House calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – small town life, a bygone era, a search for justice and truth, and the painful process of being inducted into the adult world. That’s not to say The Round House is derivative, it just evokes a timeless feeling. I guess ‘coming-of-age’ would be the trite way to put it.

The Indian reservation setting and Louise Erdrich’s potent prose make The Round House unique. Erdrich, herself, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her embrace of her Indian ancestry has given her the insight to produce a rich, fully realised portrait of reservation life – jokes about rez steak sandwiches (baloney on white bread), pow wows, traditional Indian costumes, old Indian stories about the wiindogoo (if a human resorts to cannibalism to stay alive they will be possessed by the spirit of a wiindigoo, forever craving human flesh). Erdrich writes powerfully about the injustices as well – rape, racism, Native Americans being forced off their land and dying of smallpox.

I felt Joe’s pain, frustration and confusion after his mother’s rape. He just wants his mother to come back to him, for life to be how it was. Joe is convinced that his family will never have peace until her attacker is caught. Both of Joe’s parents are responsible for upholding law and order within their community – Joe’s father is a tribal judge, his mother works for the tribal council, collecting information needed to register people as Native American. Yet, in Joe’s mind, neither are doing what’s needed to find Geraldine’s rapist. So Joe takes the responsibility on himself. Bazil is a moral, wise man, doing what he can as a judge to uphold the law, despite finding the way to justice barricaded at every turn. Now, Joe’s father has transformed from his hero to a joke, dispensing justice to hotdog thieves and violators of parking restrictions. The vividness of the emotion Erdrich conjures up is formidable, and all in keeping with the feelings of a thirteen-year-old boy facing extraordinary circumstances.

Erdrich writes from Joe’s perspective. He’s writing down his memories of that time, as a grown man. Joe slips in references to his future wife and his career as a lawyer, so you know he doesn’t let his experiences ruin his future. And I’m glad. I don’t know that I could’ve read The Round House not knowing whether his mother’s tragic assault would cause him to unravel as well.

The Round House comes out strong, the horror of Geraldine’s attack commands your attention but there are slow parts. Some of my favourite books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) have unrelated asides and contemplative portions – slow parts, for those that aren’t fans – that I either loved for their languorous pace or barely noticed because I was enjoying myself so much. The Round House wasn’t up to that level for me, I noticed it drag sometimes. But at its best it’s excellent.

Erdrich’s writing subtly claws at you, tearing you up inside. It’s so restrained in its devastation. Right alongside Joe’s bleak pursuit of vengeance is a portrait of ordinary boyhood – getting drunk, riding bikes, running from irate adults, falling in love. I barely realised how dark it was or how much I worried for Joe. Then it hit me, Joe’s life was never going to be the same again.