The Round House
by Louise Erdrich
321 pages (hardcover)
Joe, the thirteen-year-old narrator of The Round House, is like any boy. He can ride his bike for hours, sneaks a beer in the woods with his buddies, wants to impress his dad, finds his grandpa’s stories alternately fascinating and boring, and ogles his aunt’s cleavage when he thinks she’s not looking.
Yet Joe is unlike many boys. He’s the only child of older parents who’ve invested in him high hopes for the future. He’s as respectful of the Catholic priest as he is of his Ojibwe religion. And no matter what he tries, he can’t rescue his mother from her self-imposed psychological exile after she is viciously brutalized—and refuses to name her attacker.
Joe’s father is a tribal judge, but as he explains to his son, he can’t pursue justice unless his wife identifies the attack as having taken place on the reservation. But she won’t speak of it, for reasons she won’t disclose, and Joe experiences first-hand how prejudice and the laws that serve it level another kind of violence.
The months of her silence become pivotal in Joe’s journey to manhood. While his mother wastes away in her darkened bedroom, he roams the reservation, searching for clues, scouring his father’s law books and secretly interviewing suspects. And under the unseeing eyes of this close community, he decides to take justice into his own hands, with all the consequences a young man could never anticipate.
That a story with such brutality at the center can be so heartening and even humorous at times is a testament to Erdrich’s narrative gifts. Ojibwe history and culture vividly support the well-paced plot. Joe’s voice is buoyant, curious and utterly believable. His friendship with Cappy is beautifully drawn. His friends and extended family are the kind of gritty, oddball characters whose notable failures only make them more endearing.
And though these characters are fictional, the violence they encounter is not. Erdrich recently reported in the New York Times that though “one in three Native women is raped,” “federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases” and “more than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”
It’s time for this apathy to end. More and more advocacy groups are establishing domestic shelters, providing psychological care and increasing public awareness about domestic abuse and sexual violence in the Native community.
Last week, a two-day listening ceremony in Helena, Montana, organized by the Montana Native Women’s Coalition, honored women who live with violence and called communities to rally against it. Though the focus was on Native culture and the particular needs of Native women, “I don’t want to draw a line between Native and non-Native women,” said coalition chair Patty McGeshick. “We’re all women.”
And that’s why Erdrich’s novel has so much power. Joe’s mother could be anyone’s mother, his family could be any family, and the choices he faces could be anyone’s choices. Erdrich understands that brilliant storytelling speaks to people in a way that news reports do not. Her characters call the readers of The Round House to experience this injustice and to respond, for the sake of women and families everywhere.