I have been reading and enjoying Louise Erdrich since the eighties, so I am both pleased, and a bit surprised, to find that her fourteenth novel is my new favorite of them all. Critics seem to feel the same because The Round House is the recently announced winner of the 2012 National Book Award for fiction. (Erdrich was also a National Book Award finalist in 2001 for The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.)
The book’s narrator is Joe Coutts, a thirteen-year-old Ojibwe boy who lives on a North Dakota reservation with his mother and father. Bazil, the boy’s father, is a respected tribal judge with jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the tribe within the boundaries of the reservation. His mother, Geraldine, is a reservation researcher who verifies the assertions of applicants claiming membership in the tribe.
Joe, very much a product of his bookish parents, is an avid reader known to delve into his father’s law books on occasion. He very much admires his parents and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps someday. But Joe’s world is shattered one Sunday afternoon in 1988 when his mother comes home bleeding and traumatized by the violent attack she has suffered. As it turns out, Geraldine’s physical injuries will heal quicker than her emotional ones. As the weeks go by, she refuses to eat, bathe, or even leave her bedroom.
Because Geraldine refuses to identify her assailant, or even to speak of the attack, Joe and his father decide to investigate the crime themselves. But, while Bazil often bounces ideas and random theories off his son, he has no idea that Joe is conducting a dangerous investigation all his own – one that could easily ruin Joe’s future or even cost him his life.
At the heart of The Round House are the convoluted jurisdictional issues pertaining to crimes involving Native Americans. Depending on where a crime takes place, its investigation is the responsibility of either Federal, State, or Tribal Police departments – but only of one of them. For that reason, the inability to determine the precise location of a crime, which is exactly the situation in Geraldine’s case, is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a crime victim. That a white man, even for crimes obviously committed within the boundaries of the reservation, cannot, by law, be investigated by the Tribal Police or prosecuted in Bazil’s courtroom, provides the final insult.
Because Joe is telling his story in hindsight, from the viewpoint of the adult he has become, he is able to explore the more subtle issues that never crossed his mind in 1988. Does the unchecked threat of pure evilness justify retaliatory violence? Are there circumstances under which it becomes one’s personal responsibility to disobey the law? When does the real world trump the ideal world? Erdrich uses Ojibwe legend and tradition to make a strong case that the old ways are still sometimes the best ways.
The Round House is a grim reminder that Native Americans still suffer many of the same indignities they were first subjected to more than a century ago.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)