Although I have read some of Erdrich’s short stories, and “Love Medicine” is still on my lists of “must read before I die” books, I have never read one of her novels. “The Round House,” already adorned with The National Book Award Winner seal of approval, piqued my interest. I knew little about the story line — only that it was a cross between a mystery and a coming of age story.
The story opens with Joe and his father, Bazil, as they pull tenacious, weedy, small trees from the foundation of their home in 1988 on the Indian reservation. Unsuspecting and innocently, hours later, Joe’s father asks, “Where is your mother?” Joe believes she went to work to pick up a file, but feels uncertain and uneasy. They discover hours later that Geraldine, Joe’s mother, was the victim of a brutal rape that renders her a ghost-like whisper of her former self — scared to tell any details of the crime committed against her.
The book, told from the narrative perspective of Joe’s adult self, centers on Joe’s young detective skills and his need to bring the rapist to justice. He and his band of friends, all on the brink of adulthood and discovering that the adult world comes with complications of love, sex, violence and justice, work together like the boys in “Stand By Me” to uncover truths at the scene of the crime, the Round House, a sacred space where there Ojibwe hold spiritual ceremonies.
Erdrich’s storytelling left me breathless with her ability to weave together humor (in the form of the elderly Indian women who have no qualms about divulging the secrets of their past love conquests much to the chagrin of the unsuspecting listeners), and memorable characters (like the tragically beautiful priest; Joe’s charming best friend, Cappy; and Sonja, Joe’s crush who mothers him when his mother is unable to move from her bed). The story line floats through mystery and a coming-of-age summer that is shrouded in discovery and loss. The boys protect each other and help each other through the darkness and manage some freedom in their summer of discovery as they bike through the reservation.
The magic of Erdrich stems from her ability to enhance the story line with mysticism, spirituality and large doses of reality, which combine to make the reader question the nature of good and the nature of evil. As Father Travis tells Joe, “Every time there is an evil, much good comes of it” — to which Joe responds by deepening his need for vigilante justice.
Erdrich furthered my breathlessness with the revelation (at least to me) that “tribal governments can’t prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on their land.” That law (which Amnesty International called the “Maze of Injustice”), coupled with the jigsaw puzzle of land laws surrounding Indian territories and federal properties, leads to the freedom of the rapist and the eventual outcome of the book as the community seeks justice.
Even with the abrupt ending and the thin wisps of some of the story line still left unanswered, Joe’s narration of his summer of discovery founded in both evil and justice will stay rooted with me for years to come.