“My father had a voice that could thunder out; it was said he had developed this. It was not a thing he’d had in his youth, but he’d had to use it in the courtroom. His voice did thunder out and fill the Emergency entrance… Now that his anger was the thing filling the air, crackling clean, I was better. Whatever had happened would be fixed. Because of his fury. Which was a rare thing and got results. He held my mother’s hand as they wheeled her into the emergency ward. The doors closed behind them.”
When Geraldine Coutts arrives home, bloodied, trembling and smelling of gasoline, her twelve-year-old son Joe slips into the back seat of the family car to gently hold her bleeding head. When his father Bazil tries to drop him off at his aunt’s house to protect him from seeing his mother in the hospital, Joe challenges his father and a look passes between them that Joe describes as being “odd, as if between two grown men, and I had not been ready.” This moment begins the major theme of the novel, in which Joe is forced through the trauma imposed on his family to take on adult responsibilities beyond his years. Erdrich portrays this tug between adulthood and childhood as Joe looks through court cases with his father and hunts for clues with his friends at the round house, the Obijwe ceremonial building where his mother was attacked. Through years of land acquisitions, the round house now lies at the edge of the reservation, creating an essential question of geography, as the boundary between reservation and state land determines the legal jurisdiction of Geraldine’s case. Although Geraldine’s attacker is quickly identified, she cannot state precisely where the attack occurred, which puts it into a legal grey area that allows her attacker to walk free without a trial.
“My father was punishing hot dog thieves and examining washers—not even washing machines—just washers worth 15 cents apiece.”
The Round House, which won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction, was clearly written to draw attention to the terrible technicality in the American legal system that permits violent crimes committed by non-Natives on Native American reservations to go untried. Erdrich artfully draws the reader in and makes us walk alongside Joe and Bazil, infuriating us with the racial inequality of the American legal system and forcing us to witness the damage that rape does to a victim’s family long after the actual attack. Before the rape, Joe has had an idyllic childhood that has left him with an absolute faith in the power of his parents. Geraldine’s attack betrays Joe’s childhood belief in a world in which evil is always punished, as he soon discovers that even his father’s authority as a tribal judge cannot provide Geraldine protection from her rapist. Joe quickly learns the difference between law and justice– and how treaties signed before his great-grandfather’s birth will allow his mother’s rapist to walk free, while punishing Bazil with the inability protect his wife through the system that he has served all of his life. When Joe looks at his father’s legal judgments for clues to her attacker, he learns that Bazil’s courtroom is filled with trivial cases, rather than the crime drama trials he had always imagined. Although Joe often bikes past the tribal graveyard and recalls stories of lives destroyed by racism and violence, it is this discovery of the “toothless sovereignty” of the tribal courts that brings home to Joe how racial legal inequality affects him directly. When Geraldine’s attacker begins to taunt the family by frequenting their family businesses and shopping at their local grocery store, twelve-year-old Joe begins to ask what he must do to save his family.
The Round House is a brave departure from Erdrich’s signature style of the multi-narrator community story. She steps easily into the skin of a twelve year old boy, bringing us to a world of first crushes, stolen beer, Star Trek, friendship and bicycles. Joe’s pack of friends search for clues to Geraldine’s attack between swimming breaks, shifts at Joe’s first job, camping trips, pow-wows and spying escapades. We laugh as we witness Joe experiencing his first crush on his beautiful and, more importantly, busty Aunt Sonja and our heart breaks with him as he goes through the painful lessons of a maturing young man. When Joe and his friends confront and learn the history the new priest and former Marine Father Travis, they are awed by him in the way that only young men would be. Joe tells us that, “not only did he own a copy of Alien, not only did he have an amazing and terrible wound, but he had called us humiliating names without actually resorting to the usual swear words.” Throughout the novel, we watch as Joe is tries to understand an adult world that he does not yet belong to by looking up at the adults around him.
As with every Erdrich novel,The Round House draws us onto the reservation, walking us through Joe’s complex world of relatives, friends, extended family and community. Joe’s life is rich with the history and legends of Ojibwe culture, and we follow him as he explores the lines between myth and reality in order to understand what has happened to his family. Although some of the characters and scenes do not tie neatly into the narrative of the story, they add a much needed humor and human interest to the novel that cuts into the despair stemming from Geraldine’s attack. Joe travels everywhere with a pack of his three best friends, who spend their summer looking for free meals from their collective aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins. Joe’s uncle Whitey serves up “rez steak sandwiches,” while his friend Zack’s Grandma Ignatia gives them meat, frybread and stories about her youthful sexual escapades. Joe’s aunt Clementine leaves him with casseroles and the responsibility of keeping an eye on his great-grandfather Mooshum, who tells tribal stories about turtles, spirit guides and wiindigoos. The past is never far from the reservation and Erdrich uses Joe’s relationships with his tribe to introduce us to a world where the often tragic past is always a subtle part of present events.
Joe narrates the story of his thirteenth summer from the distance of adulthood and occasionally his older self interjects into the story, providing a context that adds beauty. When he writes about emotional connection to his father, he tells us that he still wears his father’s clothing after following his father into the law. We understand the depth of Joe’s relationship to his parents, because he tells us that, “I needed him so much. I couldn’t really go into it very far, this need, nor could my mother and I talk about it. But her wearing his robe was a sign to me of how she had to have the comfort of his presence in a basic way that I now understood”. Above all,>The Round House is a novel about the strength of family love. Although the story begins with the worst of human nature, witnessing the Coutts band together to heal shows us the best of humanity. From tragedy and injustice, Erdrich creates a novel about courage and the love that a boy feels for his parents.