In November 2012 Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction, beating out a rather competitive field. This was the 14th novel from this award-winning Native American author. I hadn’t previously read any of her work, but after reading the short synopsis of her latest work, I was greatly intrigued.
The Round House is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Joe Coutz, who lives on an Ojibwe (Anishinabe) reservation in North Dakota with his parents, a tribal judge and a tribal enrollment/census officer. The story begins on a seemingly normal Sunday afternoon in late spring, and Joe’s mom, Geraldine, has gone down to her office to retrieve an important file. When she does not return home within a reasonable amount of time, Joe and his father begin to worry. They go out looking for her, eventually seeing her driving back home at record speed. Back at the house, Geraldine seems unable to leave her car. They discover her severely beaten and faintly smelling of gasoline, and immediately rush her to the local hospital.
In the weeks following her brutal attack, rape and attempted murder, Geraldine is naturally withdrawn from those around her, rarely leaving her bedroom. Her attacker is still out there, and a certain fear prevents her from disclosing the details of the attack, including the identity of the perpetrator. Taking justice into his own hands, young Joe seeks to uncover details of the crime and restore his family to the before-time.
In a beautifully written story, Louise Erdrich blends together Native American history, spirituality, and tribal vs. federal law. It is not coincidental that Joe’s father is an attorney and tribal judge, and numerous court cases are brought up throughout the course of the story — both in regards to tribal sovereignty and the federal government of the United States. Interspersed within Joe’s tale — and perhaps in attempt to bring some comic relief to a rather tough story line — are the obsessions of a typical 13-year-old boy, such as breasts and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In the afterword to The Round House (page 319), Erdrich writes that “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.”
I applaud Erdrich for highlighting such an important issue is her art, and the National Book Foundation for giving the book an even wider audience.