The Round House, which opens in 1988 on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, is the most enjoyable book by Louise Erdrich that I’ve read in a long time. I am a big Louise Erdrich fan, so when I say this is the most enjoyable book by her that I’ve read in a long time, I mean it is a gut-wrenchingly memorable book.
In the first scene of The Round House, thirteen year-old Joe and his father, tribal judge Antone Bazil Coutts, are spending a hot summer Sunday afternoon digging seedlings out from the foundation of their 1940’s style bungalow house. Joe states, “…it seemed increasingly important to me that each one of these invaders be removed down to the very tip of the root, where all the vital grown was concentrated.” That sentence captures the essence of this story. In the next few pages we learn that Joe’s mother who is a tribal clerk in charge of tribal enrollments has gone missing. When she finally returns home hours later, she’s become almost catatonic due to the brutal rape she’s just suffered.
The story is told from Joe’s perspective as an adult remembering that coming-of-age summer he spent crusading to find his mother’s attacker. On one level the book is a chilling page-turner mystery, but as with most of Erdrich’s books, there is more than one level of storytelling going on here. There are encounters with a Catholic priest, and Native American stories from Joe’s grandfather, Mooshum. Joe’s band of friends – Zack, Angus and Cappy – helps with his quest to bring his mother’s attacker to justice.
The friends act as buttresses against the increasing pull of the confusing adult world. They talk to each other in language and slang from the new Star Trek: The Next Generation television show. They seemed so right for the roles in which they were written. In some ways their friendship reminded me of the boy’s friendships in Stand by Me.
Erdrich mixes magical realism with actual realism of ‘rez’ life in the late 1980’s. She doesn’t sugar coat the legal struggles or the unending poverty that existed there. But she also shows how the integral parts of family, clan, and history influence how Joe filters his experiences on the reservation.
You’ll have to read the story yourself to see how it all plays out. I’m not going to give anything away here. But as I said earlier, this is one of my favorite Erdrich books in a long time. If you’re like me, I bet that once you start reading it you won’t be able to put down this compelling story.
Krista lives just outside the urban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. Lamentably, her work as a technical writer and business analyst often interferes with her reading which is a true passion.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.