The Round House is a compelling book, and I can appreciate all the acclaim it’s received. I’ve been a fan of Louise Erdrich since I read Love Medicine in college (many years ago). If this book brings Erdrich the critical acclaim and mainstream readership she deserves (including last year’s National Book Award), then I’m all for it.
This is a tough story to read. Living on a reservation in North Dakota, Geraldine Coutts survives a brutal rape and she, her husband, and her teenage son Joe must struggle to deal with the aftermath.
The writing is intense, and rich, and often unexpected. There’s a calmness to the way Erdrich writes, despite the turbulent events of the book.
Even if she’d gone to her sister Clemence’s house to visit afterward, Mom would have returned by now to start dinner. We both knew that. Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.
And so, you see, her absence stopped time.
What’s unique about this story is that we experience her tragedy through her son’s eyes. It’s impossible to imagine how a boy his age, already dealing with turmoil in his life, can possibly deal with this as well. How does a teenage boy process what it means to be raped? To be violently beaten and threatened with murder? To live with knowing the attacker may never face justice because there’s not enough evidence –or because complicated tribal laws limit whether the crime can even be prosecuted.
Joe is narrating this book as an adult, many years later, so Erdrich gives him the voice of an adult, but the emotions of a 13-year-old, which is a difficult balance to pull off.
Much later, after I had gone into law and gone back and examined every document I could find, every statement, relived every moment of that day and the days that followed, I understood that this was when my father had learned from Dr. Egge the details and extent of my mother’s injuries. But that day, all I knew, after Clemence separated me from my father and led me away, was that the hallway was a steep incline. I went back through the doors and let Clemence talk to my father. After I’d sat for about half an hour in the waiting room, Clemence came in and told me that my mother was going into surgery. She held my hand. We sat together staring at a picture of a pioneer woman, sitting on a hot hillside with her baby lying next to her, shaded beneath a black umbrella. We agreed that we had never really cared for the picture and now we were going to actively hate it, though this was not the picture’s fault.
Joe sees his parents falling apart, but he doesn’t understand why his mother isn’t healing more quickly. As an adult (and female) reader, I could understand that his mother’s recovery would be much more emotional than physical. As adults we can understand that rape involves more than just a physical assault – it brings with it fear, shame, powerlessness, violation, etc.
But as a boy at a very difficult age, not only is Joe unable to understand these things, he struggles with the emotional loss of his parents at a time he really needs them. That, more than anything, was what made this book heartbreaking. Because a teenager’s life doesn’t stop because something terrible happens. In this story we see not only a tragedy but Joe’s day to day struggle just to grow into an adult, without the support of the loving parents he’s always known.
This book has a lot of different layers to it. There’s the story of the family, but it’s also a coming of age story of Joe and his friends. And it’s a story of the tribal judicial system, and how difficult it is to achieve justice. I was pretty shocked by some of the rape statistics that Erdrich offers in her Afterword. For example, she states that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure may be higher as most women don’t report). 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men, and few are prosecuted.
If I hesitate a little to recommend this book, I think it was mostly a pacing issue. It moves slowly and thoughtfully – yet while I could appreciate the writing, the story, the emotions, I also didn’t get completely sucked into it. It felt at times like more of a “should read” than a “must read”.
And yet, in the end, I have great admiration for the story that Erdrich has told. Some books you wrestle with long after you put them down, and this is one of them.