I was first introduced to Louise Erdrich in 2010, thanks to my boss. She was absolutely horrified when I told her I had never heard of Erdrich so she brought me several of her books. At first I was reluctant—who is this strange woman? Why should I read her books? I have nothing in common with her. This was before I realized that books can help one to learn about other cultures while also telling entertaining stories. Actually, Louise Erdrich was the first author who showed me that. Needless to say, I read one, and then another, and then I was hooked and started hunting out her books in used bookstores. The Round House is the sixth of Erdrich’s books I’ve read, but it’s the first one I’ve read since we started the blog. I pre-ordered it on Amazon, in hardcover, months before it came out, months before it won the National Book Award in 2012. And thanks to the great reading debacle of 2013 it’s sat in my high-priority pile since it arrived in October of 2012. And finally, I got to read it. And it was worth the wait.
Let me begin by saying that after reading The Polished Hoe for three weeks The Round House was a piece of cake. Erdrich isn’t always kind to her readers. She tends to be a bit free and loose with time, jumping back and forth and not necessarily telling us when she is doing so. Non-linear time is cool with me, but it always takes a bit of adjustment. She also likes to have major characters in one book make cameos in other books. This is great, and adds an extra layer of complexity, but can be frustrating when it’s been a few years since reading her books. Erdrich’s fictional world is an Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive list of characters in all of her novels yet, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. I know that Nanapush, who is mentioned a couple of times in The Round House, is a major character in The Plague of Doves, and I’m pretty sure he turns up elsewhere too. Mooshum, as well. Her most recent writing “tic” is that she has refused to use appropriate quotations to mark dialogue. She did the same thing in Shadow Tag. It annoyed me then, and it continues to annoy me. I don’t understand it. Does anyone else know what the purpose of this stylistic contrivance is? Besides to annoy me?
The major action of The Round House takes place in 1988. Joe, who is a thirteen-year-old Ojibwa boy in 1988, narrates it, though at a distance of quite a few years. At the beginning of the novel, his mother is attacked and raped and almost set on fire by a crazy person. The book is part mystery/suspense story, part coming of age novel, part tutorial on tribal law. I really loved this book. It’s sad, but parts of it are funny as hell. Erdrich’s style is so effortless. It’s so easy for me to get wrapped up in her world. And apparently somewhat difficult for me to write about it, because I’ve been sitting here, staring at my laptop screen for about forty five minutes trying to figure out what to say next! I want to do this book justice.
I don’t know that I can do this book justice. So I guess I’ll just jump in. So Joe is a pretty normal kid. He’s got a group of three friends who he bikes around the rez with, making jokes and scoring beers. It’s 1988, and Star Trek: The Next Generation just finished its first season. Joe and his buddies loved this show, and in 1988 I did too, so I appreciated all of the “make it so,” references, as well as the comments about Worf’s strange Klingon forehead. Reading books that take place “a long time ago” but also in a year that I remember well is a new-ish experience for me. I kind of love it. And hate it. I think my ambivalence needs no explanation. My life in 1988 was only similar to Joe’s in that we both enjoyed Star Trek: TNG and we both went to school. My life drama in 1988 was of the tween girl drama variety. Nothing bad actually happened to me that year, unlike poor Joe and his friends. After his mom is attacked she retreats into herself for a long time, leaving Joe and his father Bazil at loose ends. Bazil, a tribal judge, starts going through old trials over which he presided to look for anyone who might have a grudge against him. Joe gets involved and starts his own investigation into the crime against his mother. He’s a pretty smart kid and figures out quite a bit. There are some false leads he follows, too, and ends up suspecting the reservation Catholic priest of his mother’s rape briefly. This results in an amusing scene in which Joe and his friends spy on the priest while he’s watching Alien.
Everyone figures out who attacked Geraldine (Joe’s mom) long before any justice is served. The perpetrator is Linden Lark, a local sociopath. I won’t get into the whys and wherefores, but the importance is not the who but the where. Lark lures Geraldine out to the round house, a prayer house of the traditional Ojibwe religion. The reason why this is clever of Lark (in addition to deeply disturbed, of course) is that the round house in a complicated location. “Just behind it, you have the Smoker allotment, which is now so fractionated nobody can get much use out of it. Then a strip that was sold—fee land. The round house is on the far edge of tribal trust, where our court has jurisdiction, though of course not over a white man. So federal law applies. Down to the lake, that is also tribal trust. But just to one side, a corner of that is state park, where state law applies. On the other side of that pasture, more woods, we have an extension of round house land…. So the problem remains. Lark committed the crime. On what land? Was it tribal land? Fee land? White property? State? We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply (196-197).” Ultimately, the kind of justice that Lark receives, is outside of a court of law. But I won’t get into that. That’s a spoiler I won’t be responsible for publishing online.
If I didn’t have like a million more books to get through, what I would love to do is have a Louise Erdrich marathon. I want to put all the pieces of all the stories she tells together into the overarching story of the Ojibwe people of North Dakota in my head. She has bits of Ojibwe mythology in all of her novels, including this one. The Round House tells of the windigoo, a demon who consumes the flesh of humans and is able to possess people. Linden Lark is the obvious windigoo, but others show windigoo tendencies as well. I enjoyed The Round House much more than Erdrich’s last book, Shadow Tag. That one, from what I remember three years out, lacked the Ojibwe magical realism aspects that I always enjoyed in Erdrich’s other novels. It was just tragic. The Round House had tragedy in spades, but it also had hope and love and family. I’m pretty sure it’s a “woman book,” despite the narrator being a thirteen-year-old boy, which means it’s more in my wheel house than Bethany’s, but I think she might enjoy it anyway.