A novel to break your heart

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January 18, 2013

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich
Published by Harper Collins, 317 pages $27.99

Reviewed by Arleen Pare

Louise Erdrich is a fine American writer. With over twenty-five books to her name, she is also prolific. Nor is she limited to one genre, besides her fourteen novels, three works of non-fiction, one collection of stories, six books of children’s literature, Erdrich has published three collections of poetry. Her writing is diverse and literary.

She is among my favourite novelists, which is not to say that everything she writes is perfect, though many of her novels come close. Erdrich is an expert craftswoman. She can shift novelistic techniques from book to book to meet the demands of the story. Her primary fictional territory is Ojibwa country, North Dakota (Erdrich is part Ojibwa). Her characters are mainly Ojibwa, often related contemporaneously or from generation to generation. Her literary opus spans centuries.

In her latest novel, The Round House, Erdrich tells a difficult and complex story about a violent rape that shakes up a small upstanding family living on the reserve. The fact that the exact whereabouts of the incident is clouded, and that the perpetrator is non-native, complicates the legalities of crime, prolonging the crime’s unfortunate aftermath. Because the story pivots on this bitter legal detail, an inheritance from the colonial history of American Indians, Erdrich’s novel must also be understood as an admirably political text.

The Round House is told from the point of view of Joe Coutts, the thirteen-year-old son of the woman who has been raped. He is also the son of the reservation’s court judge. Still a boy, Joe is both innocent and troubled, trying to come to terms with the world and the violence that rocks his mother and father. This adolescent POV shapes the novel, at least partly, into a coming-of-age story. Joe is a typical adolescent boy; his friends are too. They sneak cigarettes, beer, marijuana; they are interested in sex and they ride their busted-up bicycles everywhere. But they become embroiled in the crime’s mystery, the whodunit, the revenge. In this way The Round House takes on the flavour of a crime novel. Erdrich is covering a lot of ground in The Round House and tackles a number of important issues. Each issue is covered sensitively, accurately (her research is impeccable), and convincingly. The story’s action unfolds with appropriate drama, the voice is consistent, and best of all, her writing is poignant, eloquent, lucid.

In the bedtime scene that follows the rape, Joe’s mother isolates herself in the bedroom. Joe observes the sadness: “My father was looking so intently at the head of the stairs as he climbed, step by deliberate step, that I crept around the couch to see what he was peering at – a light from beneath the bedroom door, perhaps. From the foot of the stairs, I watched him shuffle to the bedroom door, which was outlined in black. He paused there and went past . . . . He opened the door to the cold little room my mother used for sewing. There was a daybed in that room, but it was only for guests. . . . The sewing room door shut. I heard my father rustling about in there and hoped that he’d emerge again. Hoped he had been looking for something. But then the bed creaked. There was silence.”

These are the details that can break readers’ hearts. Be prepared to have your heart broken.

Arleen Pare is a frequent reviewer for Coastal Spectator.

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