Louise Erdrich's The Round House will rightly evoke comparisons to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Like that classic, it's a sensitively written coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a legal case involving sexual assault and simmering racial tensions.
But unlike Scout Finch, who is mainly an observer, Erdrich's narrator, Joe Coutts, struggles to understand — and perhaps avenge — an almost unbearably personal horror: the rape of his mother.
Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa tribe (also called the Ojibwe), and most of her 13 previous novels have been set on a fictional version of the tribe's reservation in North Dakota and in the towns around it. Starting with Love Medicine in 1984, the books have had interlocking casts of lively characters, Indian and white, and their plots range over more than a century. Together, they create a complex, richly detailed portrait of a community.
That reservation community is the setting in which The Round House unfolds. The novel takes place in 1988, when Joe is 13, although he recalls the story for us as an adult. He's the beloved child of Bazil and Geraldine Coutts, born when they're both well into middle age. (One of Joe's nicknames is Oops.) He's luckier than many other kids on the reservation, where poverty and fractured families are a fact of life, to have an intact family in which both parents are professionals — Bazil a judge in the tribal legal system, Geraldine an enrollment specialist.
Her job — recording and validating the tribal membership of each person — makes her privy to the intricate web of relationships among tribal members and outsiders, and to the secrets that can surround issues of parentage, the hidden slips across familial and racial lines. One such secret is the motive for the devastating crime against her.
Called to a meeting at the Round House, an isolated structure that serves the tribe as a spiritual and ceremonial center, Geraldine is viciously raped and beaten; she escapes death only because her attacker, intent on setting her on fire, leaves to get a book of matches.
Geraldine is a strong woman, but Erdrich movingly captures her trauma and her retreat into emotional paralysis after the assault. The author chooses, though, to focus on the impact on Bazil and especially on Joe, evoking with aching clarity the widening circles of pain such crimes cause.
Even before Geraldine can bring herself to start talking about it weeks later, it's not particularly hard to figure out who attacked her. He's arrested, but the problem is one of jurisdiction: Blindfolded when it happened, Geraldine does not know exactly where the rape occurred, and because the Round House is near a place where tribal, private and federal lands meet, it's impossible to determine who can prosecute her rapist. When the assailant is freed, Joe becomes obsessed with figuring out why the attack happened and with how he can protect his mother — a terrible burden for a tender-hearted boy.
Joe is "lucky: I was a boy doted on by women," but like any kid on the cusp of his teens, he's facing all the mysteries of how men and women relate to one another. Among his family and friends, Joe finds a wide array of examples of what a man should do for the woman he loves, and of what it means to be a man.
The story of Joe's best friend, the stalwart and charming Cappy Lafournais, is at once the most hilarious and heartbreaking of those examples. The friendship between Joe and Cappy is vividly drawn — Erdrich captures the boys' raw humor, macho strutting, adolescent insecurity and genuine affection in pitch-perfect style. Whether they're soberly helping with a sweat lodge ceremony, swiping beers to drink in the woods or discussing their admiration of Star Trek's Worf — "combustible, noble, and handsome even with a turtle shell on his forehead" — they're utterly engaging characters.
Despite the book's dark core, The Round House offers plenty of beauty and humor. Much of the latter comes from Joe's Chippewa relatives, such as his ancient grandfather Mooshum. When the old man talks in his sleep, he doesn't just mumble — he tells entire folk tales, like the story of the young man Nanapush (a memorable character in other Erdrich novels) going on a risky hunt to save his dying mother and coming upon the last living buffalo, who saves his life and the tribe's. It is a fable about the Indian experience — a history never far from the surface in all of Erdrich's fiction — but also a personal story for Joe.
Like The Round House itself, it's a tale beautifully told, full of betrayal and tragedy, and also full of loyalty and love.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.