AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The latest novel from the author Louise Erdrich is a not-so-typical coming of age story. It's called "The Round House," and it takes place in the 1980s. And it's all about Joe Coutts. At first, Joe's your average 13-year-old kid - worried about having the coolest sneakers, and reciting lines from his favorite sci-fi TV show with his friends. But Joe's world is turned upside down when his mom, Geraldine, is attacked and raped; as described in this scene from the novel, when Joe sees her for the first time at the hospital.
LOUISE ERDRICH: (Reading) Now, I saw my mother's face, puffed with welts and distorted to an ugly shape. She peered through slits in the swollen flesh of her lids. What happened? I asked stupidly. She didn't answer. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She blotted them away with a gauze-wrapped fist. I'm all right, Joe. Look at me. I'm all right, see? And I looked at her, but she was not all right.
CORNISH: And because she's not all right, and because Joe will do anything for her, Joe grows up - fast. For decades, Louise Erdrich has chronicled life on American Indian reservations. "The Round House" takes place among a tight-knit community of Ojibwe, in North Dakota. And in this story, a complicated legal system sets the scene for the drama after Joe's mother is attacked, as Erdrich explained to us recently.
ERDRICH: This catapults him into an adulthood. He's not ready for this, but it throws him into a set of responsibilities that no 13-year-old should have to bear. And as the book goes on, as he sees that the adults cannot find justice, it becomes clear to him - and then it becomes clear to his best friend, as well - that they may have to seek justice on their own.
CORNISH: To talk more about what stymies the adults in this story from seeking justice, give us an idea of what was happening in the late '80s, that made it difficult for victims of sexual assault on reservations to seek justice; because in the early pages, you know, one of Geraldine's - one of her husband's first questions, is not necessarily who had done this to her, but where.
ERDRICH: Well, there are several kinds of land on reservations. And all of these pieces of land have different entities who are in charge of enforcing laws on this land. So, in this case, Geraldine Coutts does not know where her attacker raped her. She didn't see; she doesn't know. So in her case, it is very, very difficult to find justice because there's no clear entity who is in charge of seeking justice for her.
CORNISH: And it makes it all the more painful, of course, because her husband is a tribal judge. He's intimate with the law.
ERDRICH: Exactly, exactly. So in writing the book, the question was: If a tribal judge - someone who has spent his life in the law - cannot find justice for the woman he loves, where is justice? And the book is also about the legacy of generations of injustice, and what comes of that. Because, of course, what comes of that is, an individual needs to seek justice in their own way, when they can't find justice through the system. And that brings chaos.
CORNISH: And the question of revenge is a topic that you've come back to repeatedly, over the years, in your work. And I didn't know what draws you to it, and-or what you're learning about it, as you write.
ERDRICH: Well, thanks for that question. You know, I am learning something about it. And I think it drew me to - to law, and what its meaning is for Native American people. The law is the basis of existence, in many ways, because reservations - and even our status within the United States - makes us legal entities because the original way tribal people were recognized, was through treaties. So I've thought about it quite a lot; and why revenge is the only form of justice in some locations, and in some terrible situations.
CORNISH: Though I feel, looking at your work, that the answer is that it's not entirely as satisfying as one might think, once you've gotten that revenge.
ERDRICH: No, I - revenge is a sorrow for the person who has to take it on. And the person who is rash enough to think it's going to help a situation, is always wrong.
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CORNISH: Louise Erdrich, speaking about her new novel. It's called "The Round House."