Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is one of the authors whose work I want to complete before I die. She is a prolific writer with 15 novels — a list that is likely to grow over the years. I must admit that reading 15 novels of a single author is somewhat intimidating, but I am committed to this goal. Thankfully, it is a life-long, long-term goal so I am in no rush to read all her work in only a few years. I’ll enjoy every one of her novels at my leisure and offer them the time and respect they deserve.  

I chose The Round House as my introduction to her work because it was one of her most recent, the plot sounded interesting and important, and it also won the National Book Award in 2012. After I bought the book, however, I discovered that many of her novels are loosely connected, with minor characters in one story becoming leads in another. For example, in The Round House there is a character who is mentioned in passing  as the friend to the protagonist’s mother. The friend’s name is LaRose. Can Erdrich’s latest release, titled LaRose, be about the same person? I’d say yes. This connection between her novels will make reading them a more rewarding experience. 

Some people may be wondering why I committed to reading Erdrich’s body of work before I had read any of it. I readily admit that it was a conscious decision to include more indigenous voices in my reading. I’ve talked about why I seek to fill gaps in my reading history before. This is one of those cases. 

You will not be surprised to hear that The Round House can stand proudly on its own merits as a marvelous achievement in storytelling. It was an excellent introduction to Erdrich’s vast and impressive body of work.

The Round House by Louise ErdrichThe story is one about deeply serious and grave matters. It is narrated by an Ojibwe lawyer, Joe Coutts, in the present as he recounts the tragic events that occurred in 1988 when his mother was attacked. Joe was 13 when his mother, Geraldine Coutts, was raped and physically assaulted by a white man in a round house, a sacred place of worship for the Ojibwe. Geraldine escapes from this attack that would have ended in a brutal death. Her life will never be the same. She is traumatized by the attack and cannot remember or refuses to divulge details of the event and assailant for her own, very personal, reasons. 

Joe and his father are patient and understanding of Geraldine’s right to take care of herself and not relive something so horrible. However, without her cooperation, justice will not be easy to come by. So Joe embarks on his own quest to seek justice for his mother. 

Along this quest for revenge, we see the Yoknapatawpha reservation come to life. Joe and his friends — Cappy, Zach, and Angus — become minor child detectives as they search the area near the round house for clues and spy on potential suspects, like the local Catholic priest who’s a mean-looking and wounded war veteran. Joe’s family is also interesting and lively, with their drama and stories to tell. His grandfather, Mooshum, offers some comic relief. At 112 year-old (or so he claims), this man is a valuable record of the old ways and is respected by all. He and other elders offer some of the funnier and more light-hearted scenes in a novel that is definitely not. 

The rest of the story progresses at a steady pace, though it can be slow at times. I wouldn’t classify it as a page-turner, as it does take some time get into the story, get to know the characters, and get used to the writing. I specifically had trouble getting used to the narrative voice, though others have not expressed any trouble with it. I found it to be dry in places and the voice didn’t flow very smoothly for reading. There are no quotation marks to indicate when someone is talking, which sometimes caused confusion and slowed my pace. However, these minor issues do not detracted from the overall literary experience that The Round House provides. 

Hate crimes against Native Americans are astonishingly common in America yet it’s not something we talk about very frequently. Natives are being attacked and killed to deafening silence, which is deeply upsetting. Novels like The Round House attempt to shine light on this issue and also on how often the law fails Native populations.  As readers, we shouldn’t neglect to read stories that reflect the harsher realities of our world. Even if it is painful to read about them sometimes. 

The Round House has my earnest recommendation. It is a powerful and suspenseful story that reads like a crime novel and offers a moral complexity that will grip and haunt you while you’re reading and long after. 

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The Round House

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26 thoughts on “Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

  1. I’ve heard that part of Ojibwe culture is to tell stories slowly, including many details and a leisurely pace, though I don’t have evidence. Did you also check out any Stephen Graham Jones novels?

  2. I recall hearing a lot of buzz about this book when it was just published and it intrigued me. I’ve never read a book by Erdrich before. I didn’t know that they are all connected in some way. I like it when authors do that.

    1. The buzz was well-deserved! It’s been a few years now since its publications.
      Erdrich has a large collection of books and there’s no easy way to decide where to start. Some just do so chronologically because the books are connected loosely, but it’s not necessary. I hope you pick up one of her books one day!

  3. Great review. Louise Erdrich is an author I want to read someday. I’ve heard a lot of good things about her work. Good luck with reading all of her novels. I’ve read nearly 40 Stephen King books in my life, so if I can do it, you can do it. 🙂

  4. I’ll keep an eye on this space for you to read the rest of Erdrich’s oeuvre. I read LaRose by her earlier this year and liked it a lot, and it did make me want to check out her other work. You should read that one next! It’s good.

    1. Yes, that’s my plan since I already own it! Also because LaRose was briefly mentioned in The Round House so I feel like I know her a little bit 😉
      After LaRose I will have a tough time deciding which one to read next. Maybe I’ll do a Twitter poll.

  5. I still haven’t read any of her books, so I’m glad to hear you liked it! You’re off to a good start!
    Do the 15 books include her kids’ books?

    1. No, these are only her adult fiction novels! She has poetry collections, and nonfiction works, and 6 children’s books. I’m going to focus on her novels for now and then decide if I want to read the rest of her work as well.

  6. Sounds like a necessary read, so thanks for this- I’d not actually heard of this book before. You’re right, reading fifteen books by the same author is a huge commitment, I think only Toni Morrison holds that kind of devotion from me! 🙂

  7. This is definitely a novel I’d love to dive in. I’m personally quite aware of the situation that a lot of indigenous people go through (Canada probably holds some of largest amount of history related to them; and a lot of the history related to them is quite brutal). This novel seems to touch some really intriguing, and moral subjects and I’d love to find out more about it! Thanks for presenting us this story and sharing your love for it. You’ve just got me to instantly add it to my TBR! 😉

    – Lashaan

  8. This one sounds intriguing. She’s such a prolific writer and a friend recommended another one of her books to me – The Painted Drum. Will let you know when I get to read her books!

  9. I really enjoyed this one, and need to read more of her works. And she’s quite prolific, so I don’t even have to fear running out of her books! 🙂 Love that you pointed out the connection to her newest, so I think I might go with that to follow up on that character. Also, it really is horrifying how there’s such a war on especially Native women going on! Love that you always connect these works to current issues!

  10. I’ve done the same thing, included an author as a must-read-everything author, even before completing a full-length work. Sometimes I’ve read a chapter or two, other times I’ve felt like I really connected with somehing they’ve said (or expressed) in a podcast or an essay. Erdrich is definitely on my MRE list. It was one of her middle novels which landed her there, but then I discovered her short stories and decided that I wanted to begin from the beginning. Which I have yet to do!

    1. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this! Erdrich won me over immediately, and I’ll be sure to venture into her Middle Grade fiction and short story collections. After I read LaRose, I think I will start with her major novels from the beginning, since LaRose is her most recent release. I’m curious to see how all her works are connected.

      1. Sorry! I meant one of the books in the middle of her oeuvre. I haven’t read any of her books for younger readers yet! I checked my log and it was Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, which put me onto her, and it’s been 15 years since I read it, and apparently more than 5 since I read the stories (The Red Convertible, which are arranged chronologically: very helpful). So I really do need to make good on my promise to get back to reading her! But I can understand the itch to read LaRose first: it sounds great.

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