Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

2012 National Book Award Winner

Erdrich’s powerful coming of age novel is set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. The narrator, Joe Coutts, tells the reader of his thirteenth summer when his mother is brutally attacked and nearly killed. Joe watches as his hitherto safe family life disintegrates before his eyes when she slips away into a depression that seems irrevocable.

There are striking parallels between ‘The Round House’ and that all-time American classic, 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. The book however has been infused with the author’s own themes.  Chief among them is Joe’s shattered innocence. Erdrich’s account of the complex emotional lives of teenaged boys is compelling…and unsettling. Joe and his three friends, Cappy, Angus, and Zack - free of over-protective parents - smoke, drink, and engage in behavior that spans the spectrum from thoughtless to bone-chillingly dangerous. Yet they are a likable bunch of kids - fiercely loyal to one another, funny, protective of the ones they care about, angry at a world that is toothless in the face of evil, and genuine in their love or lust. They do not so much grow up, as have their childhood wrenched away from them in a series of excruciating incidents.

More tender is the intimate picture of family life drawn with intuitive sensitivity. Having grown up the center his parents’ lives, Joe is left bereft and confused when his mother retreats from her husband and son, seemingly beyond reach in her isolation. Joe’s father carefully tries to rebuild their broken world while trying to elicit the truth of the attack from her.

Erdrich opens a window into a world where blood quantum is used to determine a person’s status as Indian, where people are both in the mainstream as well as immersed in their heritage, and the old wounds of racial injustice and exploitation still strike a raw nerve. It’s interesting that the author, who is herself, like her characters, Native American, does not use that term when speaking of her people. The preferred word is Indian, and her descriptions of life on the Reservation evoke a culture that is American, minus the stereotypes.

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