The Round House

UnknownThe Round House
Louise Erdrich
© 2012

WARNING: This is not a book for the faint of heart.

In this book’s Afterword, author Louise Erdrich shares some grave statistics: “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.”

This book is a work of fiction based on those gruesome facts.  But it resonates with the power and emotion of reality.

The book is narrated by Joe, a lawyer and tribal judge, who is looking back at the summer of 1988.

When the book begins, Joe and his father are doing some yard work (here is an excerpt of the first few pages).  Joe’s dad notices that his wife is conspicuously absent.  It is Sunday afternoon.  She should be home.  He worries she has had a flat tire and tells Joe they are going to find her.

They think she may have gone to the grocery store, so they start heading in that direction.  Halfway there, they pass her as she whizzes toward home.  They are relieved and turn around to follow her.

But when they arrive home, she is sitting in the car.  She hasn’t moved.  Her hands still grip the steering wheel.  Joe and his father go to her:

Cradling her elbows, he lifted her from the car and supported her as she shifted toward him, still bent in the shape of the car seat. She slumped against him, stared past me. There was vomit down the front of her dress and, soaking her skirt and soaking the gray cloth of the car seat, her dark blood. [. . .]

With one hand, he opened the door to the backseat and then, as though they were dancing in some awful way, he maneuvered Mom to the edge of the seat and very slowly laid her back. Helped her turn over on her side. She was silent, though now she moistened her cracked, bleeding lips with the tip of her tongue. I saw her blink, a little frown. Her face was beginning to swell. I went around to the other side and got in with her. I lifted her head and slid my leg underneath. I sat with her, holding my arm over her shoulder. She vibrated with a steady shudder, like a switch had been flipped inside. A strong smell rose from her, the vomit and something else, like gas or kerosene.

In the months that follow, the family deals with Joe’s mother’s attack in many ways, including withdrawal, rage, fear, and feelings of helplessness.  Although Joe is only thirteen at the time, he is forced to grow up very quickly.

As Joe and his father learn more about the attack, their drive for justice intensifies.  But the stress and pain of the attack is augmented by the very real possibility that the rapist will be able to skirt justice.  When Joe’s mom was assaulted, her head was covered by a pillowcase, so she doesn’t know exactly where the attack took place.  Her case, therefore, is complicated by convoluted law.  Tribal law governs tribal land.  State law governs state land.  Non-natives can’t be prosecuted under tribal law on tribal land.

The knowledge that the rapist could get away with the crime fuels Joe’s thirst for revenge.

Rating: 3.5/5 🚔

My aunt, Ann, recommended this book to me after I started this blog.  I’d never read any of Erdrich’s books before, but my stepmother had also recommended The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to me a while back, and it was on my to-read list.  I decided to give it a go.

I didn’t know much about the book before I started reading (other than it was supposed to be good), so I hadn’t adequately prepared myself for the book’s subject matter.  And it hit me pretty hard.  I read the first chapter one evening and had to take a break from the book for the rest of the night.  It is pretty intense and disturbing.

Fortunately, the entire book isn’t as impactful as the beginning (I don’t think I could have handled 300+ pages of that).  In fact, the middle of the book is pretty slow.  Sometimes, it’s even boring.  But the end packs a punch.

Overall, this is a book that is worth reading.  The subject matter is heavy, so it’s not one you can breeze through.  But the book is well written—it won the National Book Award last year—and Erdrich has a unique voice and style.

A word to the wise: Go into it mentally prepared for the emotion it will evoke.

Who should read it: people who can handle books with a little violence and intense subject matter (i.e., not my mother).

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5 thoughts on “The Round House

  1. I haven’t read The Round House yet, but i would agree with Tina’s affirmation of Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. .Although I must admit that some my appreciation of Erdrich’s writing stems from the fact that the settings of her books are frequently in the Red River Valley of North Dakota where I grew up, I enjoyed this book because it is a thoughtful and lyrical account of the life of a priest who is neither a priest nor a man who selflessly serves the Ojibwe community. You also might want to read Erdrich’s The Beet Queen.

    • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is still on my to-read list . . . but it may be a while before I tackle another of her books. In the meantime, I’ll need to read some fluff. 😉

  2. I agree that this book is tough going in places, but it really is a searing testament to the fact that the law does not treat all equally and justice is not blind. Really opened my eyes to some painful truths. Thanks for taking it on.

    • Sadly, the notion that what is legal is necessarily also fair and just was debunked for me when I began practicing law. But I learned a lot about the jurisdictional issues pertaining to tribal lands, which was interesting. Thanks again for the recommendation! Keep them coming!

  3. Pingback: I Know What You Should Read | Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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