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The Round House - Louise Erdrich UPDATED - 1/16/13 - see links a bottom

The Round House is a knockout of a book.

Louise Erdrich is one of the true deities in America's literary Olympus. With The Round House she has used her mythic creative powers to give us a book that can be read as a page-turner about a terrible crime, the attempt to identify the criminal and take action, or as a rich, layered look at a culture in a place and time, and a lad coming of age within it, the tale imbued with telling details, a colorful palette of imagery and cultural significance. Or best of all, both.

The story opens with a father and son trying to remove invasive tree roots from the foundation of their home. This being Erdrich, you can figure that roots of one sort and another will figure in the story. Antone Bazil Coutts, known as Joe, is thirteen years old. His father, also Antone Bazil, is a judge with great reverence for the law. When Joe’s mother, Geraldine Coutts, is brutally beaten and raped she retreats into the security of solitude, not only to allow herself time to heal, but to try to protect her family, and others as well. The thrust of the story is the puzzle of who and why. Erdrich drops clues along the way like a seasoned writer of detective fiction.

How we understand the world is informed by the stories we are told, the culture in which we are raised. Christians are raised on stories of magical abundance from a few loaves and fishes, reincarnation, angels, a sometimes communicative if often cranky, creator. A colorful local priest offers Christian teaching. Many of the Ojibwe we meet here have friends or relations who are believers.

The Ojibwe have their legends too. Erdrich shows this by imbuing her tale with magical realism. Native lore is both told in stories and shown as living reality. This is a world in which the shadow of a passing crane becomes an angel on a bedroom wall, a world in which a twin feels the presence a doppelganger, of her separated other, and in which the evil spirit, a wendiigoo, in a dark man seeks to devour the spirits of others. Ghosts figure in the story. Joe sees one. His father reports having seen ghosts as well. Mooshum, Joe’s beloved grandfather, explains something about ghosts to Joe. Other characters as well report seeing ghosts or having their own other-worldly experiences. We see the Ojibwe affiliating with and being protected by various animals. Joe seeks guidance by visiting his clan totem, herons. Another tale is told of an Ojibwe being saved by a turtle. And an old bison communicates with one young brave in a legend. In addition family names include Larks and Coutts, and a town physician is Doctor Egge. I won’t ask which came first.

We see the events in Hoopdance, North Dakota, through Joe's eyes. Joe has a group of pals, most importantly his studly bff, Cappy. They see things through a more contemporary lens, Star Trek: The New Generation (TNG), the series having begun less than a year prior. The boys’ use of TNG stories, lore in this context, offers them meaningful language with which to define elements of their world. Of particular interest is the episode called Skin of Evil. Don’t check it out until you are reading the book. The relevance will be immediately obvious. The boys’ banter and relationships give the feel of a Stephen King story, one of those in which he particularly shines at portraying young people. Together with Native beliefs and Christian teaching, we have an unusual trinity of primary interpretive influences.

What is the Round House? We learn it's history and generation from Mooshum. It is a meeting place and is supposed to be a safe haven, a building the Ojibwe, one in particular, were told to construct by a spirit. Religious ceremonies, among other events, take place there. And yet it has been violated, just as tree roots attempted to insert themselves in the foundation of Joe's house. We learn the story of the building’s genesis, see it in benign contemporary use, and see it again, under less than benign circumstances. It is also situated in a location near where sundry jurisdictions intersect, Ojibwe, state, federal, the perplexity of which figures in the tale.

There is a cornucopia of riches in Erdrich's construction. Joe's father's respect for the law is almost religious, and is mirrored by the knowledge of and contempt for the law expressed by the baddie. Native lore is compared to that of classic Greece. There are plentiful references made here that inform the story. Classics like the Iliad, Shakespeare, Plato and more recently, Dune, which resonates, with a young man taking on adult responsibilities. Bazil refers to his Handbook of Federal Indian Law as his bible. This compares with the priest and his actual Bible and Mooshum, Joe’s grandfather, with his oral history and tribal spiritual beliefs. Is Bazil’s belief in the law any more magical than Father Travis’s belief in an eternal creator? Is Father Travis’s belief in a resurrected savior any more out there than believing that one can communicate with an elderly bison?

Clothing is used to great effect as well. When one key character is in the hospital, two relations don his clothing as a way of feeling close to him. A woman with a dicey past is shown to full effect by the costume she dons. After an infection of the spirit, a woman says that some Ojibwe women “dressed me in a new ribbon dress they made. I started healing and felt even better.” And the counterpart, nakedness, is also revelatory.

Hiding away permeates, from Geraldine hiding in her home and inside herself, to Nanabush, a character in a story, hiding inside the carcass of a dead bison, to the genesis of the Round House as a physical manifestation of the bison’s carcass, a safe place, a hideaway.

Erdrich’s work is imbued, not only with Native American characters, but with a look at Native reality on the ground, the buildings, the legal challenges, the extended family relations, in addition her use of magical realism. We are told of Native encounters with bison, turtles and cranes. We are also shown how Native people have been treated by the American legal system. That Joe’s father has such long-term faith in the merits of the law is impressive, maybe inspirational and possibly sad.

Her compelling story carries us along at a nice pace. We get to enjoy interesting travel companions on this journey, people we want to spend time with, particularly Joe, and while we are getting from here to there, (maybe on a shuttle craft?) we are treated to a fascinating look at things we might not have seen before, ideas we might not have encountered, history we might not have known.

If you have read Erdrich before you know how good she is. If you have not read her before you are in for a treat. So if you get the urge to dash out and pick up a copy of The Round House all I can advise is make it so. You will definitely engage.

PS – In case, for some reason, you do not want to jump to the provided link, here is a very spoilerish bit on the TNG episode noted above. Skin of Evil is a Star Trek: New Generation story the boys refer to. In it a powerful, blob-like creature, torments several of the Enterprise crew, even killing one. An element of this being is that it feels terribly lonely, abandoned by its own kind. Here, Linden, our psycho killer, is the one who truly feels empty, which is ironic since he was the twin who was kept. His damaged sibling, Linda, has felt his presence all her life, and experiences emptiness, but never turned to such darkness. In the TNG episode, Armus, the baddy, was acting out of a feeling of abandonment. (Linden = wiindigoo = Armus) The twist here is that the child who was literally abandoned turned out to be a good person, while the one who was kept became a monster.


Washington Post book review by Ron Charles, October 2, 2012

NPR interview with Erdrich re Round House

10/10/12 - TRH is nominated for a National Book Award

11/15/12 - And the Winner is...

1/16/13 - Cathy Dupont's review offers not only her insightful take on the book but several excellent links that enhance our appreciation for some of the core issues raised by Erdrich. Check it out.