The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is one of the few perfect books I’ve ever read. I have nothing to complain about. I would change nothing about this heartbreaking, but satisfying book. Instead, I have only praise—so you’ll all need to bear with me while I gush about how stunning this book is. The Round House has so many of the things I love: explorations of justice and ethics, revenge, broken histories, and subtly beautiful writing.

We tend of think of the law as a stable thing. Laws against murder, assault, theft, and so on are always illegal. The truth is much messier than that, especially on Native American reservations. American law (like everyone else’s, I expect) is cobbled together, full of oversights, mistakes, and loopholes. When people get caught in one of these gaps, the results can be devastating. Such is the certainly the case in The Round House. The novel begins with our protagonist, Joe, and his father arriving home to discover that Joe’s mother, Geraldine, has be been brutally attacked and raped. In the first third of the book, Joe and his father, Judge Coutts, pursue the case because it’s not clear who’s jurisdiction Geraldine’s case belongs to. Once they do discover who did it, things get worse because Geraldine doesn’t know if the attack happened on tribal, state, or federal land. Because no one knows where the crime happened, no one can try the criminal.

Joe, at thirteen, burns with outrage for most of the book. He sees his mother suffer terribly in the aftermath of her rape. Then he sees his father rendered helpless by the laws that he is sworn to uphold. Joe doesn’t understand, deep down, why no one is ensuring that Geraldine gets justice. The novel makes it clear that White justice won’t work. That said, the narrative contains many hints that there are other paths to justice.

Early in The Round House, Joe and his father are reading over case files to try and find Geraldine’s rapist. While they do that, Joe thinks of the 1883 case, Ex parte Crow Dog, a curious Supreme Court ruling that established that people who had been tried by a Native American tribe could not be re-tried in another court. There are also stories, told by Joe’s grandfather, about how the Ojibwe would deal with wendigo, people who had gone so far to the bad that they needed to be killed for the safety of others. The book is so subtle about the theme of sanctioned vigilantism that it snuck up on me. When I finally understood what The Round House was trying to say, I had to marvel at the skill that went into this book.

While this theme is emerging, we see Joe and his life on a South Dakotan reservation is such rich detail that I could feel the heat and dust of summer. I’ve only been to South Dakota once, but my memories of the state and of the reservation just north of my hometown came roaring back as I read. But the reservation in The Round House is not the desolate, poverty-stricken place that we normally see in fiction and on the news. It helps that Joe has a lyrical mind:

Now the crane my mother used to watch, or its offspring, flapped slowly past my window. That evening, it cast the image, not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from their slender body. Then the feathers took fire so that creature was consumed by light. (157*)

Joe’s reservation feels like home, as if there’s no other place that he could live and be comfortable. Joe’s exploits with his friends and his grandfather provide much needed doses of levity in an otherwise very somber book.

The Round House is one of the best written books I’ve read in a long time. The writing is so simple and gorgeous that I’m still glowing But what really made this book for me was the way that it dealt with the idea of thwarted legal justice and justified retribution. I wish I had read this with my book group because I want to get into a long discussion with someone about the outcome of Joe’s quest.

Undated photo of Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota

* Quote is from the kindle edition by Harper.

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