Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

It's not often I'm so timely with my book reviews. Louise Erdich's "The Round House" was this 2012's National Book Award winner for fiction, which for me is basically a breaking story. Normally I read books I find on doorsteps, so they're old and possibly swarming with parasites, but my feminist websites have been all abuzz about "The Round House" because it's the first book by a Native American woman to win the prize, and I needed to see what the fuss was about. I had to wait in the hold queue for several weeks to get my library's copy, so all of the professional reviewers have already taken a crack at this book, but let's dive in anyway. We all know that my crack is the best.

I'm going to show up in some disturbing Google searches for that sentence.

This is the third book of Erdrich's that I've read, after "The Master Butchers Singing Club" and "Love Medicine." I own a copy of "Love Medicine," which was pretty good and I may review it someday. But I have to confess that even though I tried a couple of times, I couldn't get through "The Master Butchers Singing Club." Both books are these sweeping family sagas that play out over several generations. "The Round House" is not, and I think it's a better book than the other two because of it. The family sagas have sprawling casts of characters and various historical events to get through, so everything is more general and broadly drawn. We don't get a really in depth picture of one character or situation because there are so many. But with a book like "The Round House," Erdrich zeroes in on one person, at one point in time, dealing with one event, and this gives the story room to breathe and really explore its various dimensions.

"The Round House" takes place over a single summer in 1988 on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, where the narrator Joe has just turned thirteen. The book opens with the brutal attack and rape of his mother, and the rest of the story is about the fallout of this attack, both within Joe's immediate family and within their community. Joe's father is a judge on the reservation, so we get a close, inside look at the legal challenges faced by Native American tribes when they go looking for justice within a justice system that has not, historically, protected their interests or rights. Joe's mother knows and can identify the culprit, but the man attacked her on an intersection between reservation, state, and federal land, which are all represented by different courts. It's impossible for anyone to determine what legal entity has jurisdiction over the crime, so the man gets away free. 

Or does he?

"The Round House" is an interesting mix of a legal thriller and a coming-of-age story. Joe is full of energy and zest for life; he runs around, makes mischief, ogles women and sneaks booze and drugs with his friends, because he's thirteen and his life is just beginning. But he's also the recipient of several hundred years of very sad and bloody history that comes crashing into his own house and family when his mother is attacked. He struggles to integrate his natural teenage selfishness and irresponsibility with this huge burden of justice that has suddenly descended on his shoulders. There's a lot of humor in his journey, but also a lot of sadness as he trades his innocence for a lifelong sense of terrible purpose, and realizes that things will never return to their former shapes.

Final Grade for "The Round House": B+/A-. Once you start, you can't put it down, but the subject matter is harsh and I'm not sure I want to re-read it anytime soon. Not recommended for the faint of heart. Recommended for those who like coming-of-age stories, legal thrillers, and books about the contemporary Native American experience.

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