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 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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