BY TARAH CHILDES
13-year-old Joe Coutts is helping his father pry tree saplings out of the foundation of their home on a day that had him wishing “something out of the ordinary” would happen. Shortly afterwards, Joe’s mother, Geraldine, arrives home bloody, shaking and wet with gasoline. She has been the victim of a brutal rape and beating, her attacker intent on setting her alight before she manages to escape.
The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel and the winner of 2012’s prestigious American National Book Award, is set in 1988 rural North Dakota. Our sole narrator, Joe, and his family live in the fictional Indian reservation of Yoknapatawpha, and are a part of the Ojibwe tribe, first introduced in Erdrich’s acclaimed 2008 novel The Plague of Doves.
While the novel‘s plot hinges on the difficulty of prosecuting non-Indians who commit crimes, rape in particular, on reservation land, it is equally a Dickensian coming of age tale. Geraldine’s attack occurred at the Roundhouse, a sacred site and jigsaw puzzle of federal, state and tribal land each with their own set of jurisdictions, making it nearly impossible for Joe’s father, a tribal judge, to attempt prosecution. Joe, increasingly frustrated with his mother’s depression and his father’s inaction, resolves to seek justice himself.
He enlists the help of his three best friends and together they bike through the Indian county in search of clues in the haphazard manner of typical teenage boys. Erdrich’s portrayal of their journey, replete with sweat-houses, youth groups, Catholic priests, “Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take”, and rich landscapes are vividly portrayed. But it is her pitch-perfect dialogue that captivates the imagination and infuses an otherwise very serious novel with humour. The teenage boys veer between adult contemplation and naïve joys, like sneaking cigs and beer (that may be evidence), the anticipation of sex, and Star Wars-style banter about penis size: “Zack laughed at me, Aren’t you a little short for a Storm Trooper? Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you?”
None of this distracts Joe from his pursuit, which he describes as a search for “the identity of the man whose act had nearly severed my mother’s spirit from her body.”
Unlike Erdrich’s other novels which make use of multiple viewpoints, we see the events of The Round House only through Joe’s eyes. His naive, honest account distills Erdrich’s otherwise ambitious undertaking of both chronicling American Indian life and telling a contemporary crime/coming of age novel. A combination which would otherwise seem forced. The Round House is a worthy, fascinating read that packs an emotional, intelligent punch.