I confess that I have not read Louise Erdrich for years. But when I started hearing from countless friends that her latest book, The Round House, was remarkable and that they found Erdrich in top form, I put a hold on the book at the library. And waited and waited, like many other library patrons, for months. That The Round House had won the National Book Award didn’t help with the wait. Last week, it finally arrived and I raced through it in two days.
The Round House is a dark, powerful coming-of-age narrated by Joe, a 13-year-old boy growing up on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation. It is 1988 and Joe and his friends bond over their love of “Star Trek Next Generation” (the paragraph in which Joe breaks down the Next Generation characters is worth the price of admission). They race bikes, steal beer and do what normal boys do. But everything changes for Joe and his friends when Joe’s mother is raped. Joe’s mother, Geraldine, barely makes it out of the ordeal alive and retreats into her pain and trauma while Joe and his lawyer father walk through the aftermath of this violent act together.
The Round House shows just how devastating such acts of violence can be to a community. Joe discovers through his father’s legal investigation the injustice and the legal entanglements that persist in making it difficult to try cases of violence against native women. The laws on tribal lands, the jurisdiction of wealthy whites and all of the politics from history to present day point to the legacy of racism.
Joe decides to try to find out who hurt his mother and therein lies the real depth and the mystery of this haunting novel. Joe is forever changed by what he learns about the evil inside men, the ghosts of the past and his own capacity for violence.
The Round House has an intimacy to it that is alarming as it is enveloping. Joe tells this story of pain and violence amidst a time of burgeoning and obsessive sexual discovery and it is in this intersection of sexuality, violence and community that the dark, entangled strands of meaning reside.
The Round House is the book that I wanted Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend to be–it comes full circle in presenting a complicated moral tale in which a young person’s character is forged in the fires of bitter reality. The Round House asks the questions that Erdrich has been asking in all of her work, what it means to be a Native American and how this question is defining to America’s very identity, in a gripping, compelling way with a voice that resonates on many levels. This is a stunning achievement and a great read.