A recent convert to Louise Erdrich, I was excited when The Round House (2012) won the National Book Award last month, the first major award Erdrich has taken home since she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her debut novel, Love Medicine, in 1984. Thrilled she won, yes, because she’s an exceptional American author. Honestly, though, now that I’ve read it, I find myself questioning the judges. Full of potential, I found The Round House to be a bit of a mess.
We started out on the wrong foot. I was a bit dismayed by the blunt metaphor we find in the book’s very first sentence: “Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation.” Our narrator is Joe Coutts, a thirteen-year-old boy of the Ojibwe tribe in North Dakota. It’s a Sunday morning in the summer of 1988, and he and his father are outside trying to dig out the sprouting seedlings.
They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. They had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry them loose. My father wiped his palm across his forehead and damned their toughness. I was using a rusted old dandelion fork with a splintered handle; he wielded a long, slim iron fireplace poker that was probably doing more harm than good. As my father prodded away blindly at the places where he sensed the roots might have penetrated, he was surely making convenient holes in the mortar for next year’s seedlings.
Because I already knew the basic premise of the book, I found this to be a tad overdone, though I guess you have to have your characters doing something when they first come onto the page.
As Sunday starts to drift away, Joe and his father, Antone Bazil Coutts (whom some might remember from Erdrich’s Plague of Doves, which I have yet to read but will soon), begin to worry because Geraldine, mother and wife, has been gone for hours without word. They arrange to get a car to go find her, telling themselves all of the silly things she must be doing, how they’ll laugh about it all later. Massive relief sets in when they are driving down the road and she zips by them in the other lane, heading home. Relief gives way to terror when they finally catch up to her and find that she has been raped and doused in gasoline. She’d just managed to escape.
The crime has threatened to destroy the foundation of the Coutts family, and everything Joe and his father do to fix it may just be making it worse — in case that wasn’t clear already. That metaphor aside — in fact, let’s throw it out the window for now because the book is, at this juncture, better than that — all of this develops naturally over the next fifty pages. Geraldine, normally a vivacious, clever, kind, loving wife and mother retreats into her room and into herself. She won’t tell anyone the details, including who did it. She denies she ever went looking for a file. The only thing they know is that the crime happened somewhere near the round house, an old log hexagon used once for rituals, both sacred and profane.
Independently, Joe and his father plan how they will achieve justice. This is harder than simply finding out who did it, though. In fact, though presented as a mystery, it is hardly a mysterious; we suspect who committed the atrocity because through side stories we learn about only one potential culprit with motive and madness enough to do this. Well before the book reaches its climax, Erdrich confirms we are right. That’s not a quibble I have with the book because, again, finding him is not the problem. The real trick is prosecuting him, bringing about justice. Though they know the crime was committed near the round house, the round house sits close to three types of land, each in different jurisdiction governed by a different set of laws. Such is the “toothless sovereignty” of the Indian people that if they don’t know the crime was committed on their land they cannot prosecute. The rapist, kidnapper, and potential murderer goes free (though I get that they don’t know where the rape occurred, I am curious about why they could not prosecute for kidnapping and attempted murder, which all took place on Indian territory; does anyone know if this is a hole in the book?).
This has been one of many real problems the United States legal system has imposed on the Native Americans. In the back of the book, Erdrich cites a 2009 Amnesty Internation report that found that one in three Native American women are raped; 86% of these crimes are committed by Non-Native American men, most of whom are never prosecuted due to various legal loopholes that have given way to a sense of inevitability and helplessness. The book also touches on the 1823 Supreme Court case that stated that Native Americans could sell their land only to the United States Federal Government (thus keeping the prices low and establishing via dicta the doctrine of discovery); throughout a century spent purposely pushing the Native Americans into debt to the Federal Government, a lot of land was transferred to pay the debts, pushing the people onto reservations with no food. A later story in The Round House takes us back to that time. Again, I found this aspect of the book nicely developed, introducing the deplorable legal precedents that form the foundation (there, by no accident, is that metaphor again!) of Indian law. Bazil Coutts himself is a judge, and he pulls out some of his old cases to study them for legal precedents. Joe looks on with boredom — how can his dad be proud of cases that deal primarily with silly little crimes? – but I found it fascinating. The cases themselves may have mundane facts, but Judge Coutts used these facts to make incremental progress in chipping away at more than a century’s-worth of horrific legal precedent. This portion of the book was interesting, intelligent, and relevant.
Sadly, for me anyway, Erdrich fails to really explore this area with any real nuance because she continually moves away time and time again to show Joe’s coming of age. Yes, it adds texture to the novel, and Erdrich is generally great at adding texture, but here it had a dilutive effect and only just stops short of completely washing away everything else. It’s not that Joe’s development shouldn’t be there at all. On the contrary. When we first meet Joe out digging seedlings out of the foundation to the family, er, the home, we see him wishing for some excitement. Years later, when he’s telling this story, Joe looks back with a bit of guilt: “In a vague way, I hoped something was going to happen.” Of course, he didn’t want what actually happened, but that impression forms a part of him. His personal development from that bored child into the successful prosecutor he eventually becomes years later is done well.
The distracting bits deal with his friends and other relations. Again, it’s not that these shouldn’t be here (we need to get to know his friends who help him get through this time), but watching the four thirteen year olds fantasize about Star Wars, Star Trek, sex, and beer – for pages and pages at a time – really pulls the reader away from the more pressing, nuanced issues. Does the book really need to be a crime drama and a summertime coming-of-age novel? I don’t think so. The summertime coming-of-age stuff was partially there to show Joe’s own tendencies toward women, but for the most part it isn’t done well enough to serve anything other than a conventional, rote story.
Also distracting are the elaborate side stories from other characters. Linda Wishkob, whom you may recognize as the twin in Erdrich’s story “The Years of My Birth” (which I reviewed here), sits down with Joe and Bazil and tells the terrible story of how she was discarded by her white parents and raised by the Wishkob family. It’s a great story (which is why I remember it so well two years after I read it as an independent story). I gripe a lot about novel excerpts being presented as independent short stories. It also doesn’t work to take a fully developed short story, with independent themes, and insert it into a novel with a different rhythm and raison d’etre. It seemed like an afterthought, as central to the story as Linda and the story actually is.
Less organic still are the old man Mooshum’s stories. Joe finds himself sharing a room with Mooshum, and each night Mooshum tells a story from the time when the reservation was established and the people were starving. The strange thing here is that Mooshum is asleep! Asleep he manages to go on at length one night and then continue the story, without missing a beat, the next. This story gives Joe the history of the round house and of an old myth that just may explain how the crime committed against his mother relates back generations. I’m not making an argument for strict narrative realism here. I’m fine if Linda Wishkob or Mooshum go on for pages to tell stories in a way we just don’t naturally tell stories. My problem here is that they are so crudely inserted into the book, and that crudeness is further emphasized by the snaking narrative threads in these stories, threads that don’t serve The Round House. To go further, I also don’t need to have all the threads neatly tied together, but in this case so many tangles do not make the book richer.
For a few pages The Round House leaves this behind and again focuses on the legal issues making the case impossible to prosecute. Again Basil explains the importance of his legal opinions to Joe, who is beginning to get it: “Everything we do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly.” I remain a devoted fan of Louise Erdrich, and in truth so much of what I admire in her comes out in The Round House, but, due to the failures I’ve mentioned above, this sentence stood out to me. Ultimately The Round House is cobbled together, and the loose shoots coming out of each individual narrative crack and warp the whole thing.