Louise Erdrich’s The Round House won the National Book Award for fiction in 2012. She is another new (to me) author of whom I’ve heard some good things and whose books I’ve seen for a while in bookstores. Her novel A Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
An attack on his mother changes the life of 13 year-old Joe Coutts and his father, Bazil, a tribal judge on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988. While Joe’s mother remains in bed in a state of deep depression, Joe and his friends, particularly his best friend, Cappy, embark on a mission to find the attacker. A refreshing aspect of the novel was the relationship between Joe and his father. Because of the danger involved in the manhunt, Bazil is understandably afraid of his young son’s involvement; however, he is able to rise above his fear allowing their relationship to grow as they both try to find answers.
The novel begins as a mystery; however, quickly becomes more than that. The attacker is identified but remains loose due to technicalities in the laws governing the reservation. This description of a tribal cemetery brings together the religious and legal aspects that meld together with the modern world:
They lived and died too quickly in those years that surrounded the making of the reservation, died before they could be recorded and in such painful numbers that it was hard to remember them all without uttering, as my father did sometimes as he read local history, and the white man appeared and drove them down into the earth, which sounded like an Old Testament prophecy but was just an observation of the truth. And so to be afraid of entering the cemetery by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb. The old cemetery was filled with its complications.
Father Travis Wozniak, an ex-Marine priest ran the Catholic youth organization on the reservation. I think his character perhaps was meant to show the “white man’s” attempt to Anglicanise the Native Americans; however, he didn’t quite bring everything together in my mind. He seemed to be set up as a more important character than he ends up being. One of the more humorous episodes in the novel occurs when Joe’s friend, Cappy, “sins” with a girl from a summer missionary group. Feeling guilty, Cappy goes through the traditional confession process. During the confession, Father Travis emerges from the confessional in a rage to pulverize the kid. Cappy, however, is able to outrun the ex-Marine for what seems like about two pages. As much as I laughed at this scene, it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the novel.
Erdrich’s beautiful narrative brings the story to an ultimate act of vengeance and it’s effect on Joe and his friends. As the boys are driving off into the sunset to an ending that has been foretold, I felt a bizarre sense of foreboding freedom:
I know there’s lots of world over and above Highway 5, but when you’re driving on it – four boys in one car and it’s so peaceful, so empty for mile after mile, when the radio stations cut out and there’s just static and the sound of your voices, and wind when you put your arm out to rest it on the hood – it seems you are balanced. Skimming along the rim of the universe.