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The Round House

Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. 

Summary from Goodreads: “One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.”

I’d heard about The Round House a long time ago, but never got around to reading it or looking it up. I’m not sure what exactly brought it to my attention again, but I decided to pick it up, having never read any other of Louise Erdrich’s novels. 

Joe’s narrative voice is quite interesting, very matter-of-fact as he relates his life, though I’m not sure how realistic the descriptions of reservation life are. Some parts of the book felt a bit forced, but others really resonated, particularly towards the beginning when Joe’s father prepares an awful stew, which oddly enough cheers all of them up. The story itself, despite its drama, flows along at a fairly slow, mellow pace. It reminded me a bit of Canada, a book which I didn’t finish. The Round House starts off very slowly, but then it really picks up. I had difficulty getting into the book at first, and it was slow going. Still, right from the get-go, Erdrich managed to capture something hard to pin down, as well as father and son’s obsession with catching the criminal, to the point that Joe’s father brings the files back home, something he almost never does in a normal situation. But of course, this is not normal. I enjoyed the descriptions of the fairly petty cases that Joe’s father takes on, and the interpretations of them, of the people who live in and around the reservation, white and Indian. This scene shows the tension between families in the area, without the reader actually meeting them or hearing them say anything. It was quite effective. 

In some ways, The Round House really doesn’t seem like it’s set in the 1980’s; it could be at any time in the 20th century. Louise Erdrich writes very well, and I’m sure factually since her mother is half Ojibwe, the tribe that Joe belongs to in The Round House. I wasn’t sure at first if The Round House was going to live up to all the acclaim it received, like the National Book Award and one of The New York Time’s best books of 2012, but it eventually was pretty good. It just took a while. 

The Ojibwe is a little known tribe; I had certainly never heard of it before reading this book, or the sacred round house which gives this book its title and is where the crime took place. It’s very ironic that such a terrible thing should occur in such a sacred place, and that is where Joe begins to investigate with his group of friends. But as the summary says, it is only the beginning, and the investigations, the official and the unofficial, will change everyone’s lives. Meanwhile, Joe’s mother is alive, but struggling to cope with the aftermath of what happened to her. 

Joe is a heartbreaking character, in between phases in all sorts of respects, and what happens is just a little bit more than he can handle. He thinks he can though, and he thinks he can find the attacker (as he calls him) without the help of the authorities, with only his very immature friends’ help. To give you an example of that, they find a piece of “evidence” in the woods near the round house, some cans of beer, and promptly drink them. And Joe is only thirteen. It was very sad. He also hurts his parents a lot with his investigating. 

Still, The Round House was a good book, one which I would recommend. 

317 pages. 

Rating: ****

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