The Round House – Louise Erdrich (Book Review)

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which recently won the 2012 National Book Award, tells the story of a Native American family living on a North Dakota reservation in the late 1980s. Erdrich, herself a member of the Chippewa tribe, writes almost exclusively about Native Americans, and many of her novels take place on the same fictional reservation, The Round House being one of them.

The novel is narrated by 13 year old Joe Coutts. It begins tragically with the rape of the boy’s mother, and proceeds to depict the pain and fallout the assault causes in both the family and the community around them. Geraldine Coutts leaves home one Sunday to go pick up a file at work. When she returns, it is clear that something horrible has happened to her. Joe and his father spring into action.

Erdrich deserves immense praise for so powerfully and accurately rendering the mind of a young boy. Joe has led a very quiet and–in spite of many of the terrible inequalities faced by his people–relatively normal life. He loves Star Trek, riding bikes with his friends, and trying to insert the legal terms he has picked up from his judge father into conversations with people his own age. Joe is entirely believable and relatable. It is heartbreaking to watch as he is violently thrust into a situation that he is old enough to understand but not quite mature enough to fully process and respond to (if such a maturity level even exists in such horrible circumstances).

Joe’s sadness in the aftermath of his mother’s attack is heartbreaking. “With all my being, I wanted to go back to before all this had happened. I wanted to enter our good-smelling kitchen again, sit down at my mother’s table before she’d struck me and before my father had forgotten my existence. I wanted to hear my mother laugh until she snorted. I kept thinking how easily I could have gotten in the car with her that afternoon. How I could have offered to do that errand. I had entered that furrow of remorse—planted with the seeds of resentment—peculiar to young men.” And later, as Geraldine battles depression: “Not even my mother herself, cared as much as [my father and I] did about my mother. Nobody else thought night and day of her. Nobody else knew what was happening to her. Nobody else was as desperate as the two of us, my father and I to get our life back. To return to the Before.”

While this struggle at home takes place, The Round House skillfully runs its young characters (Joe and his friends) on parallel paths. For instance, they witness the horror of sexual crime first hand while attempting to discover their sexuality themselves as young pubescent boys. Each of them struggle to own and respond to their impulses and young crushes, navigating the difficult landscape of young adulthood while the reality of a broken, adult world looms over them.

This novel, which is surprisingly suspenseful and tightly plotted, keeps the tension ratcheted up to occasionally unbearable levels. There are moments here so intense and emotionally taxing that reading begins to generate physical responses. I found myself not breathing at times. Yet Erdrich’s greatest accomplishment is to balance such storytelling with investigations of powerful and difficult themes.

Erdrich writes in the afterword that “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% of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men.” The challenges faced by Native Americans in modern America are very potently uncovered in The Round House. Erdrich weaves brief history lessons and anecdotes into the story through some of the elders in Joe’s life, and the reader is exposed to first hand accounts of how life on the reservation is filled not only with daily challenges such as alcoholism and isolation, but also with systemic challenges that result in devastating pain and injustice. Without spoiling too much of the plot, laws put in place by the government—some expressly to disadvantage Native Americans, others simply full of messy, bureaucratic foolishness—turn the investigation of Geraldine’s rape on its head and send the characters down paths otherwise unimaginable.

Wonderful, strong Native American men, like Joe’s father Bazil, find themselves having to work hard not even for a fair shake, but simply to prove they deserve a fair shake. Bazil, when explaining to his son why he cannot risk bending the law to seek justice for his wife, says of his court cases, “These are the decisions that I and many other tribal judges try to make. Solid decisions with no scattershot opinions attached. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. Our records will be scrutinized by congress one day and decision on whether to enlarge our jurisdictions will be made.” Erdrich gives these injustices a face and shows us how personally these nationwide oppressions can affect people.

Finally, and most challengingly, the novel explores the religious and philosophical consequences of this horrible crime. The religion of the characters in this book cannot be understood outside of the aforementioned strife between Native Americans and the American government that tried to control them. “During the old days when Indians could not practice their religion—well, actually not such old days: pre-1978—the round house had been used for ceremonies. People pretended it was a social dance hall or brought their bibles for gatherings.” Religion for the Native characters in this story is a tricky thing, with the nature-based faith of their ancestors in constant contact with the catholicism that has infiltrated the reservation.

One of the novel’s main characters is a military veteran turned priest whose presence hovers around Joe and his friends for various reasons throughout the novel. Late in the novel when Joe talks with the priest about the pain his mother and his family is suffering, the priest offers this theological response:

“So you have to wonder why a being of [God’s] immensity and power would allow this outrage–that one human being should be allowed to directly harm another human being. The only answer to this, and it isn’t an entire answer, is that God made human beings free agents. We are able to choose good over evil, but the opposite too. And in order to protect our human freedom, God doesn’t often, very often at least, intervene. God can’t do that without taking away our moral freedom. The only thing that God can do, and does all of the time, is to draw good from any evil situation.”

Though different camps might express it differently, and theologians of varying stripes would take issue with Erdich’s priest’s articulation, Christian readers are no doubt familiar with this basic concept. Romans 8:28 is one of the more oft quoted passages in the Bible. But in the moment, and even after the moment, for those who have endured unspeakable tragedy, it is easy to doubt, or even resent, that sentiment. When Joe shares what the priest said with his friends, one responds: “He said that? [Expletive deleted].”

As the novel comes to a close, the reader is left to wrestle with this question. Can good come out of this tragedy? Erdrich doesn’t seem willing to give any easy answer. The book ends with tragedy, much like it begins, and yet throughout the novel, there are numerous hints and allusions to a stability and strength that has risen from the ashes of the sadness.

In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller writes: “If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition.”

This question is possibly the most difficult for Christians to answer, and is a common lament of skeptics. Reading The Round House, the one thing that seems clear amidst all the difficulty is that these characters have no place they feel truly comfortable turning for comfort in such hard times. Alcohol, sex, and violence all fall woefully short of righting the ship for Joe, his family, and his friends.

Though many will find the answer unsatisfactory, the Christian faith makes the radical claim that God can make all things work together for the good of his people because he willingly absorbs the ultimate consequences of bad. He chooses to reverse and reconcile all human tragedies by willingly undergoing and overcoming the ultimate human tragedy: death. If the gospel is true—if Jesus really does beat death and returns from the place of no return (i.e. the grave)—then we can begin to see how God might be able to reverse the worst of human tragedies for the good of those whose trust is in him. This is the paradox of the Christian faith: that someone else willingly bears our ultimate affliction so that we might be comforted when we experience penultimate afflictions, tragic as they may be. More poignantly, in the word of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Or, to toy with the phrase of The Round House’s priest: “It isn’t an entire answer, but it’s the only answer.”