I remember reading Love Medicine (1993) by Louise Erdrich for an English class in high school. I was probably too young and inexperienced to really appreciate it. I just vaguely remember some domestic violence and being disturbed. So, when I saw that The Round House (2012) was making news and getting good reviews, I was, at first, ambivalent about reading it. Fortunately, I let go of my high school ignorance and gave Erdrich another try.
Joe Coutts is thirteen years old during some of the most formative events of his life. He lives a pretty comfortable life on the Ojibwa Reservation as a much-loved only child of his father, Basil Coutts, an attorney and tribal judge, and his mother, Geraldine Coutts, a tribal clerk. When his mother is brutally attacked and raped, Joe's stable family is abruptly and unexpectedly torn apart. His mother is suddenly not the same mother he's grown up with his entire life, and his father is a distracted version of himself. Joe not only feels the loss of his parents, but the burden of responsibility for finding out who did this. To complicate things, Joe, who is still a child, is not privy to all of the details of the investigation. He faces a lot of confusion, fear, and frustration.
"My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think as we watched her we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved." (43)
Erdrich does an amazing job of getting inside Joe's head. Although I'm certainly no expert of 13-year-old boys in stressful situations, Joe's thoughts, feelings, and actions felt real to me. In addition, Erdrich spends a considerable amount of time in detailing Joe's friends, relatives, and others living in or near the reservation. Each one has a life interesting enough for their own book: the Catholic Priest who had come back from the war with his own physical and mental demons; the raunchy grandmother who's beyond caring what anyone thinks of her; and Kappy, the best and most loyal friend.
The Round House also included a fascinating glimpse into American Indian culture and history. Before law school I knew almost nothing of real American Indian issues. I only knew the quick story taught to young, U.S. students that focused on discovery, Thanksgiving, disease, and reservations. Studying some Indian Law and working with a couple of tribes during law school, has made me slightly less ignorant. Erdrich manages to tackle a number of the major issues facing American Indians today, as well as injustices from the past, in a personal way. From alcohol abuse and domestic violence to why the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to questions of legal jurisdiction between state, federal and tribal authorities, Erdrich informs her readers of a world that--although very similar to many small, rural towns in the U.S.--is also a world apart.
"Suzette and Josey were round but phenomenally strong, so they could move with dignity under the weight of all this tradition, and not collapse." (274)
The Round House is not an easy read. Erdrich tackles some pretty heavy topics, and it takes some concentration to take everything in. Wikipedia said that some compare her writing to William Faulkner, in that they both populate their scenes with memorable characters. Since I also haven't read Faulkner since high school, I am not in a position to compare the two. However, the dread I occasionally felt for what I feared might happen reminded me of how I sometimes feel while reading Cormac McCarthy novels. Erdirch wrote with such realism and lack of sentimentality, that I did not trust her to make everything come out all right in the end. To sum up: The Round House was a moving, realistic, well-written, and complex story that is worth reading.
"I walked past them and continued until I reached the stairs. I carefully took the steps. As I went up, drawn in my weariness as if by a rope, I felt their eyes on me. I recalled this happening before at some time and me watching." (293)
"On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going."