In The Round House by Louise Erdrich, a 13 year-old boy, Joe, grapples with the devastation that follows a violent sexual assault on his mother. His mother is forever changed by the attack; she is a ghost of her former self, and this in turn, deadens her relationships with her husband and son. To complicate matters, Joe and his family are Native Americans living on an Indian Reservation, which subjects the crime to a muddled legal system. The assault occurred near the Round House, a round structure where religious ceremonies are held, in an area that throws the jurisdiction of the case into question. Whether the attack occurred on tribal or state land, which his mother cannot recall, greatly affects the potential for the crime to be prosecuted in a court of law. As Joe’s father is a tribal judge, Joe takes a great interest in the legalities of the case and struggles with the idea of what justice might do for his mother. If the attacker were to be jailed, would she eat and tend to her garden again? And if the attacker were to be allowed to go free, would she always remain empty and afraid, a distressing substitute for the woman he had previously called mother?
These are heavy matters for a young boy, and since the narration comes from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, the book is replete with sensitive articulations of emotions, many of anguish and uncertainty. Yet there are spots of humor throughout the book. Many of the comical scenes occur in the presence of Joe’s three friends, Cappy, Angus, and Zack, who have typical teenage adventures, ride bikes, and sneak beer. Levity can also be found in Joe’s colorful relatives, such as his grandfather Mooshum, who contends that he is 111 and still calls Joe “Oops,” since 13 years ago, Joe was the baby of a surprise pregnancy. Other playful spots occur unexpectedly, such as the first time Joe’s mom smiles after she is attacked. In this scene, Joe is eating dinner with his mother and father, a dinner that Joe’s father had prepared, intentionally using smelly, rotten vegetables in the preparation, in the hopes that Joe’s mother will feel compelled to start making dinner again. As Joe clears away the dinner, he notices his mother smiling as she teases his father about the food. She questions him and the father responds:
Exactly how old were those turnips?
Older than Joe.
And where did you get that onion?
That’s my little secret.
And the meat, roadkill?
Oh, god, no. It died in the backyard.
Overall, The Round House is an affecting coming-of-age story. It won the National Book Award in Fiction and is available for checkout at the VC/UHV Library.
Review written by Laurie N.