2012 National Book Award finalist in Fiction: Louise Erdrich, The Round House
November 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
He started walking again and from time to time I glanced at him, but he didn’t speak. Finally, when we turned into the trees, he said, Evil.
We’ve got to address the problem of evil in order to understand your soul or any other human soul.
There are types of evil, did you know that? There is material evil, that which causes suffering without reference to humans but gravely affecting humans. Disease and poverty, calamities of any natural sort. Material evils. These we can’t do anything about. We have to accept that their existence is a mystery to us. Moral evil is different. It is caused by human beings. A person does something deliberately to another person to cause pain and torment. That is a moral evil. Now you came up here, Joe, to investigate your soul hoping to get closer to God because God is all good, all powerful, all healing, all merciful, and so on. He paused.
Right, I said.
So you have to wonder why a being of this immensity and power would allow this outrage – that one human being should be allowed by God to directly harm another human being. (e-book p. 289, Ch. 10)
Unlike the other finalists for this year’s National Book Award in Fiction (with the possible exception of Junot Díaz, who utilizes a character who has appeared in his other books, although rarely in a central role), Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is the fourteenth novel in a loosely-connected “series” set on a North Dakota Ojibwa reservation. Yet despite my relative unfamiliarity with her novels (I had only previously read a couple of her shorter fictions that appeared in anthologies), The Round House was a very sad and moving novel that highlights several of the injustices that the nations experience when it comes to “jurisdictional matters” regarding crime on the reservations.
The Round House is a combination of a who-dunnit mystery and a coming of age tale. Thirteen year-old Joe Coutts, the son of the tribal judge, becomes concerned after his mother suddenly becomes withdrawn from the family, barely emerging from her room. After he and his father learn that she is the victim of a brutal rape, one in which the rapist unsuccessfully tried to set her aflame after pouring gasoline on her after the rape, Joe begins investigating the actions and motives of non-reservations regulars after the non-tribal police refuse to do more than a cursory investigation into that heinous crime.
Erdrich does a mostly excellent job in developing Joe’s character over the course of the novel. We see his maturation of character, as he learns that his earlier guesses as to who might be the rapist are unfounded, as well as he learns to cope with the inequities involved in tribal/non-tribal interactions. The slow reveal to the rapist, fraught at times with red herrings and a few unsavory characters that feel less developed than others, has a conclusion that pays off not just on the level of a crime/police procedural novel, but also on that of a Bildungsroman, as Joe’s character changes quite a bit.
One problem, if “problem” is the word for it, that I had with The Round House is that despite the story being mostly self-contained, there was the sense that I got that some characters were “hidden” in the sense that for those who had read Erdrich’s previous novels, their motivations and character traits would be well-known and logical, while for a neophyte such as myself, there was a mystery to them that The Round House does not explain. I have heard other reviewers before compare the structure of Erdrich’s novels to that of Faulkner’s tales set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi in that certain characters might appear central in one tale and be a background character in another, yet still have influence on the latter story by their very presence. The “lack” in this case isn’t anything that is the author’s fault, but rather is a situation in which some readers (such as myself) have not read the related stories and thus lack understanding of certain characters and their actions that would make the story even more enjoyable.
Yet even this “lack” is more than offset by the power of the story that Erdrich tells. The degree of social injustice in this story, the very real problem of ill-defined federal/tribal jurisdictions on what happens on tribal lands that is perpetuated by outsiders, is a sobering reminder of the long history of nigh-powerlessness that the nations have had in relation to the federal and state governments (only in 2010 was an attempt to rectify this passed into law; a related 2012 bill that would cover related women’s issues has been blocked to date in Congress). It is easy to be outraged, but it is much more challenging to show those injustices in a way that doesn’t detract from the story, but instead informs the tale, making it an integral part of the story without seemingly to be a didactic exercise. The Round House succeeds as a novel because the depth of the injustice and the power of Joe’s (and others) outrage is so strong that by the novel’s conclusion, the reader will find herself caring deeply not just about the fictional situation, but also the very real underpinnings that shape the novel’s narrative.
Out of the five finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction, The Round House is the story that saddened and enraged me the most in terms of my reactions to the characters and situations. Whereas the other finalists reviewed to date have touched upon disillusionment and the search for identity in a world that is rapidly changing around them, the characters in Erdrich’s novel seek justice in the face of historical injustice and their struggles are a poignant reminder of the historical atrocities inflicted upon the nations by the federal and state governments over the past few centuries. Although the few minor issues that I noted above do not make The Round House the best out of this strong shortlist, it certainly is in my estimation the second-best out of the five nominees.