In her 14th novel, Louise Erdrich returns to the Ojibwe reservation and the Coutts family to explore the complex social, spiritual and legal circumstances surrounding a rape and a young teen’s struggle to make sense of violence and his mother’s drift into depression.
Two weeks before summer vacation in 1988, Geraldine Coutts was raped and beaten, but she cannot bring herself to talk about the attack — not to her family, to Ojibwe authorities or to the police. Her husband, a tribal leader, is stymied in his attempts to seek justice and answers through conventional modern methods. Profoundly affected by Geraldine’s disconnection from her life and frustrated with the law, 13-year-old Joe becomes desperate to help his mother recover. Aided by his friends, the boy relies on both his cultural roots and contemporary media heroes to seek clues to the crime, setting off on a journey that crisscrosses Ojibwe sacred spaces and American secular domains.
Louise Erdrich wrote The Round House from Joe’s young perspective, although at the telling, Joe is grown and is, like his dad, a tribal judge. The novel brilliantly conveys how Joe’s adolescent mind tries to make sense of the adult world, moving easily from gross teen boy thoughts to crushing despair about his deeply-wounded family.
As with many of Erdrich’s books, The Round House shines light on the complicated legal web that surrounds life on the Ojibwe reservation. Without a clear idea of the ethnic background of the perpetrator and the precise location of Geraldine’s attack (public land, North Dakota land, federal land, Ojibwe land), the responsible jurisdiction cannot be determined. There is also a question of just how hard white authorities will work to solve the rape of a Native American.
The Round House is an emotionally disturbing, beautifully written coming-of-age story in which young Joe is faced with the unfair task of determining who he is at the core of his being. He wonders if violence is avenged through violence and if he is capable of doing wrong in the name of doing right. Because the story is told in retrospect, we know Joe’s ultimate decision doesn’t break him, but the choices made by him and his community in the summer of 1988 have long-reaching effects.