The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

This is an excellent novel, not least because it has a straight through-line, from a horrible rape to the pursuit of the rapist. It certainly deserved the 2012 National Book Award.

And never have I encountered an Erdrich work that moved in such a straight line to its finale. There are few sidetracks, as we follow 13-year-old Joe and his three friends as they seek to learn the identity of the rapist, and then decide on their own kind of justice.

The rape victim is Joe’s mother, and his determination to seek justice grows as he sees her in shock, confining herself to her room, neither eating nor talking. The boys turn detective after learning the crime occurred near the Round House, a site of past Indian ceremonies on their reservation’s border in North Dakota. Since it is not clear which legal authority has jurisdiction over that site, and since the white men’s legal system is not that interested in tracking down a white perpetrator, anyway, Joe grows determined to find the man himself, and administer Indian justice.

But matters are complicated by Joe’s uncertain conscience as he plans his revenge. His father is a judge, and Joe has been trained to respect the law. Moreover, he and his three friends are nominal Catholics, and they have been bred never to resort to evil themselves.

Their investigation is sidetracked at first when the boys begin an amusing Huck Finn type scrutiny of a new local priest—and discover he is a seriously wounded vet who could not rape anyone. Later, their youthful naïveté increases as this priest chases Cappy all over town after Cappy confesses his desecration of the church with his girlfriend.

Cappy, who is more mature and the leader of the group, is Joe’s best friend. The other friends are Zack and Angus, who serve more as loyal followers. Although Joe himself heads their investigation, he still looks up to Cappy. Overall, the four boys exist more as a group, while Cappy and Joe exist as individuals.

The sense of Indian justice is enhanced by a legendary tale told in his sleep by an old Indian, Joe’s grandfather Mooshum. It is about a young boy and his escape from men who see his mother as an evil “wiindigo.” And its telling achieves two effects. First, it enhances the Indian atmosphere. But it also provides an indirect inspiration for Joe’s own pursuit of justice. For in introducing the idea of an Indian evil spirit that can take over one human body, which then devour other humans, it suggests to Joe the justice in killing an evil one to prevent further evil.

Note that after a few weeks, Joe’s mother does recover and seems to return to being normal. But this does not change Joe from seeking  retribution. He still wants justice to be done, and is determined to make it happen, mostly because the authorities are not yet willing to do so.

It is the details of the boys’ pursuit that keeps the reader interested. First of all, they are boys, and are continually entertaining themselves. With their bikes, their discussions of Star Wars, their pursuit of food, their skinny dipping, their awareness of sex (exposed to the grandmothers bragging about their men, and to Sonya’s awesome breasts). But they are not afraid to confront their neighbors for news. Indeed, these neighbors come alive, from Joe’s extended family, such as Clarence and Uncle Whitey, to various townspeople. There is Linda, for example, adopted sister of the suspect. We hear her life story, but it is less a diversion than a divulging of the background of the suspect.

This is also a coming of age novel. Joe is first introduced to reality through the vulnerability of his mother. But even more significant is his understanding of the professional limitations of his father, the judge.

That a judge who is an Indian on an Indian reservation in 1988 may deal with petty crimes, drunkenness or stealing, but his hands are tied when dealing with major crimes, especially when they often involve non-Indians.

This realization is what turns Joe toward administering his own justice, but it also makes him aware of his conscience—and a realization that actions have consequences, that he is no longer living in a kid’s world, that there are others more powerful whom he must deal with. And, finally, he learns at the end that he must live with guilt, with the knowledge of the justice he is responsible for.

The texture of this novel is enriched by three separate value systems. There is the Indian set of values, represented by Mooshum’s tale of the Indians’ belief in evil wiindigoos that devour people, and the right to kill them. There are the Catholic values, based on one’s individual conscience, and, according to the priest, a belief that good can come out of every act of evil. Finally, there are the conflicting set of political values when an Indian commits a crime versus when a white man commits a crime, and whether in Indian territory or in white man’s territory.

To sum up, this is one of Erdich’s most enjoyable novels, precisely because it is told in a straight line from a single viewpoint. And yet it encompasses a crime story, a coming of age story, a political justice story, and an exploration of morality and one’s conscience. It is a deceptively complex work, but one that is held together by Joe’s more mature recollection of the past, when he has become a judge himself.

One wonders why Erdrich used such a different approach from her previous work. Probably because it is centered on one catastrophic event. But perhaps she will now be aware that complexity does not depend on multiple narratives. The issue may then become whether or not her future works will be built around multiple events or a single event. To work, the former requires more social awareness; while the latter requires, as here, a deeper analysis of the inner life. (October, 2013)

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