'Round House' Is One Of Erdrich's Best

cover image from The Round House
The Round House

by Louise Erdrich

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I've devoted many hours in my life to reading, and among these hours many of them belong to the creations of novelist Louise Erdrich. In more than a dozen books of fiction — mostly novel length — that make up a large part of her already large body of work, Erdrich has given us a multitude of narrative voices and stories. Never before has she given us a novel with a single narrative voice so smart, rich and full of surprises as she has in The Round House. It's her latest novel, and, I would argue, her best so far.

The narrator is an Ojibwe lawyer named Joe Coutts, son of tribal judge Bazil Coutts and tribal clerk Geraldine Coutts. The novel opens in Joe's 13th summer — in 1988 — as we see him and his father at work in the garden of their house on the North Dakota reservation.

"Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation. ... They had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry them loose," Joe tells us. Even in this description of a seemingly calm and bucolic task, we can hear hints of the violence and difficulty of the events soon to come, as Joe pries loose the truth of a long and painful story.

As Joe later puts it, his mother's clerk job is "to know everybody's secrets," working as she does with tribal records going back many generations. It happens that while father and son work at their gardening, she drives off to fetch an apparently controversial file from her office and suffers a brutal, nearly fatal sexual assault. This event turns upside down the life of the family and the entire reservation's sense of justice.

As pure story, the novel unfolds at an even pace, taking us through the revelation of the mother's terrible encounter with a man whose description, let alone identity, she refuses for a long while to divulge. After being treated for her wounds — at least the physical injuries — she retreats into her room at home while father and son attempt to pursue some justice in this case.

The elder Coutts works with law enforcement, including the FBI. Young Joe goes sleuthing, which leads to some wonderful set pieces, as when he and his reservation pals take it upon themselves to spy on the priest in residence on the reservation. The priest happens to be a badly wounded Iraq War vet, who catches them at their spying and sends them spinning out back into the world. It's a world that becomes more and more sinister when, like self-proclaimed detectives out of a Mark Twain novel, Joe and his friends sift through clues at the ancient ceremonial lakeside round house where his mother was attacked.

Halfway through the story, Joe makes clear what we as readers know has to be true. "You have read this far," he says, "and you know that I'm writing this story at a removal of time from that summer." That long view — and the experience of having become, like his father before him, a tribal judge — gives Joe a clarity of mind and an emotional distance from that tumultuous period of his adolescence, when the harm done to his mother spurred him to commit even greater violence. All of this he describes in a voice that's smooth but never bland, nurtured by years of experience and honed by memory, a voice reminiscent of some of John Steinbeck's best narrators.

As a judge, he tells us that everything he does, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. He might be speaking for the novelist, who has created for us the keenly made story of a peculiar history, in an out of the way part of our continent, that touches on the hearts and souls of us all.

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