My father had become convinced that somewhere within his bench briefs, memos, summaries, and decisions lay the identity of the man whose act had nearly severed my mother’s spirit from her body. With all that we did, we were trying to coax the soul back into her. But I could feel it tug away from us like a kite on a string. I was afraid that string would break and she’d careen off, vanish into the dark. – from The Round House –
“Maze of Injustice,” a 2009 report by Amnesty International included the following statistics: 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted. In 2010, then North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan sponsored the Tribal Law and Order Act. In signing the act into law, President Barack Obama called the situation “an assault on our national conscience.” – from the Afterword of The Round House –
Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman living on a North Dakota Indian Reservation, is attacked one summer day in 1988. The attack is brutal, and Geraldine is severely traumatized and too frightened to give details about the assault to law enforcement. As Geraldine isolates herself, taking to her bed and refusing to eat, her husband Bazil and thirteen year old son Joe begin to investigate the case. But whereas Bazil, a former Tribal judge, recognizes the limitations of the judicial system, Joe seeks justice for his mother even if it means stepping outside of the law.
Narrated from Joe’s point of view, Louise Erdrich’s newest novel exposes the cracks within the Native American justice system, and examines the strong familial ties and loyalties found in Native culture. Erdrich borrows characters from her Pulitzer-winning novel Plague of Doves (read my review) including the delightful Mooshum who is now over 100 years old but still as feisty as ever. But it is Joe, a boy who is quickly losing his innocence in the wake of his mother’s trauma, who takes center stage. Through Joe’s eyes the reader meets his large extended family and is able to slip into the Native culture and cuisine, as well as experience their struggles within an often rigid framework constructed by the United States government.
The Supreme Court decision for Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe is central to the plot of The Round House. In this decision, the Supreme Court determined that tribes lacked criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians even if the crime occurred on Native land. For Erdrich’s characters, this decision will impact their choices in a way which I did not see coming.
Despite the serious themes in The Round House, Louise Erdrich manages to inject humor which often made me laugh out loud. I have come to appreciate Erdrich’s ironic sense of humor, and this ability to lighten her often dark stories is just one reason I look forward to reading her work.
The Round House is filled with memorable characters, ingeniously plotted, and delivers its message without being preachy. I blew through this book in one day (while reading for the 24 Hour Read-A-Thon) and the pages practically turned themselves. Gripping, poignant, comic, and deeply rooted in Native culture, The Round House is another amazing work of fiction by an author at the height of her powers.
Readers who love literary fiction, Native American fiction, or novels based in history, will love this book.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.
Readers wanting to learn more about the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act and the complicated procedures use to prosecute cases on Native land, should check out this excellent interview with Sarah Deer who is an assistant professor at the William Mitchell College of Law and Muscogee (Creek) tribal member .