Congratulations to Louise Erdrich, whose recognition for ROUND HOUSE includes the 2012 National Book Award (citation here) and now, the American Booksellers Association’s 2013 Adult Fiction Book of the Year (an Indies Choice Book Award, as selected by independent bookstores nationwide).
The Round House, Louise Erdrich, Harper, 2012, $27.99 hc
Native American writer Louise Erdrich returns to the familiar world of the Ojibway reservation with The Round House, her most accomplished and powerful novel yet. The Round House is partly a coming of age story, but it also explores themes familiar to her readers – issues of class and culture, the bonds of family and tribe, and the need to correct wrongs both ancient and new.
“Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation,” says thirteen-year-old narrator Joe Coutts at the beginning the novel, tipping us off to the struggle of injustice within and outside the reservation. Joe lives with his father Bazel, a tribal judge, and his mother Geraldine, a lawyer who now lies in an upstairs bedroom in mute depression following a horrific rape. Bazel, circumscribed by anger and grief, cannot breach Geraldine’s silence and solitude and, with very few other clues, can do little to investigate the crime. It is left to Joe to pick up the pieces of his life, fending for himself and gathering the crumbs of evidence that fall his way. Joe has a small lifetime of discussing tribal legal issues with his father and an intimate knowledge of the reservation. Driven by a need to find out what happened to his mother, he explores places and asks questions he’s too young to handle. The steady rhythms of reservation life, here beautifully told, drop their inevitable hints, and Joe slowly begins to piece together the puzzle of the crime while struggling to retain his connection to his mother, his father, and his group of friends.
Erdrich often uses multiple narrators in her novels, resulting in layered stories that cut back and forth in time. Her narrative approach is more straightforward here, which lends a vibrating tension to the unfolding events. Joe is completely believable, teetering on the edge of an adulthood he fears and wants in equal measure, taking on the big questions of injustice and belonging in the wide-eyed yet skeptical way typical of boys his age. He is the perfect narrator for this aching and complicated story. Erdrich also moves away from earlier books by presenting a more ambiguous struggle: this is not simply a world where the poor struggle against their wealthier oppressors, where minorities rub up against white power brokers. Joe is the son of tribal privilege, at the top of reservation hierarchy, and this gives a different, more universal slant to the story and somehow upends our expectations.
Erdrich has long been one of America’s most lyrical writers. She is poetically attuned to language and setting. The Round House builds on her reputation with a book that is perfectly balanced, perfectly paced, perfectly voiced. It is heartbreaking and beautiful, full of sorrow and longing and hope. This is Erdrich’s best book to date, a mature vision from a writer at the top of her craft.
Bottom Line: Louise Erdrich returns to the familiar world of the Ojibway reservtion in this beautiful novel about crime and justice, in her most powerful novel yet.