Books Jacket Copy

Louise Erdrich's 'The Round House' mixes tragedy, coming of age

The Round House
A novel

Louise Erdrich
Harper: 336 pages, $27.99

Louise Erdrich's "The Round House" is a solid coming-of-age novel set on a fictional North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, the subject of much of her work. That this book — good, but not extraordinarily so — won the National Book Award on Nov. 14 illustrates just how idiosyncratic literary competitions can be.

With its cover now adorned by the National Book Awards' gold medallion, "The Round House" will, presumably, find a wider audience than it would have before. Erdrich has been building this narrative world since "Love Medicine" in 1984; yet for those who don't yet know it, this book provides a decent entree.

In the novel, Joe, a sheltered 13-year-old, must come to terms with crime, justice and adult sexuality after his mother is brutally raped. She is so traumatized that she initially will not speak of the incident or name her attacker, and Joe decides to find the culprit. He quizzes his father, eavesdrops on conversations and bikes around the reservation with his three closest friends, investigating.

Interspersed with this quest are more mundane scenes from Joe's everyday life — boyishly lusting after his uncle's buxom girlfriend, reading his father's books, skinny-dipping with his friends, going to his grandfather Mooshum's birthday party. The tribe's mythic-slash-spiritual history is also present; Joe learns forgotten legends when Mooshum talks in his sleep.

Joe's mother is devastated, almost beyond the reach of her friends and family. His father does his best to try to bring some normalcy back to the household, but the sadness there weighs on Joe. Both he and his father know that the attack took place at the intersection of native and state lands – jurisdiction isn't clear. The authorities may not be able to bring about justice, even after a clear suspect emerges.

To all this weighty drama Erdrich brings a touch of humor, while she imbues the new generation — Joe and his three best friends — with a sense of potential and hope. There are teen crushes, outrageously inappropriate old people, and faithful friends. In some ways, it feels comfortable and familiar, like "Encyclopedia Brown" with darker content, or "Stand by Me" with not-quite-as-dire a crime at its heart.

Of course, Erdrich also brings in details of life on an Ojibwe reservation unfamiliar to most readers. Families are poor, fry bread is a comfort food, and the powwow a welcome annual celebration.

Erdrich doesn't fetishize these details; they are presented in the plain-spoken language of the every day: "The girls bought cotton candy. They peeled off strips of fluff for us. We drank pop and tried to crush the cans in our fists. Things started up. Veterans brought in the American flag, the MIA-POW flag, the flag of our Tribal Nation, our traditional Eagle Staff.... We stood on the top tier to watch it all: the drums, the rousing synchrony of bells, rattles, deer clackers, and the flashing music of the jingle dancers. Grand Entry always caught my breath and made me step along with the dancers."

Chunks of the book could stand on their own. Mooshum's midnight mumblings are actually told in the form of short stories. Another character recites her history the same way, an impossibly thorough account for a conversation over a dinner table. And some scenes — discovering a priest's past in the Marines, teens joking around naked in the woods — feel like set pieces, not so much part of the plot as grafted onto this novel.

The characters in "The Round House" are part of a larger story Erdrich has been telling most of her career. Threads connecting the characters run through her novels and short stories; Mooshum and Joe's father, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, appeared in Erdrich's 2008 novel, "The Plague of Doves." Because her novels aren't chronological — this one is set in 1988 — and because history and legend often merge in the storytelling, it is possible to pick one up without feeling the absence of the others.

In a world this sprawling, some individual events lose their emotional power. Mooshum's decrepitude, played for laughs, is more poignant if the reader can remember his ribald youth. The status of wives and other women, peripheral to the thoughts of the 13-year-old narrator, means more when the reader has encountered them elsewhere, up close.

Joe often serves as an observational lens without much of a personal point of view. This is in part the conundrum of the adolescent — Joe is a child finding his way to the man he might become, under the shadow of the crime against his mother. His unknowingness emphasizes how hard it is for the many elements of the story to hold together. The reader can watch them happen but may not be moved by them.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Fiction's worst families: Take the quiz
    Fiction's worst families: Take the quiz

    Thanksgiving is one of the biggest family holidays of the year, a time for celebration — or regret, depending on the kind of family you’re born into. “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in...

  • Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Lawrence to film Lynsey Addario's story
    Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Lawrence to film Lynsey Addario's story

    Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-winning actress who stars as Katniss Everdeen in the "Hunger Games" films, will portray real-life photojournalist Lynsey Addario in a film based on her memoir "It's What I Do." Steven Spielberg will direct.

  • Kansas and the right to free expression
    Kansas and the right to free expression

    Last week, by a vote of 26-14, the Kansas Senate passed SB 56, a bill that amends the state’s existing public morals law by striking an exemption that protects teachers from prosecution for exposing students to "harmful material."

  • Ursula K. Le Guin slams new Kazuo Ishiguro novel
    Ursula K. Le Guin slams new Kazuo Ishiguro novel

    Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel "The Buried Giant" has so far garnered mixed reactions from critics, with some praising the author for his foray into fantasy, and others finding the result "misbegotten." In a blog post published yesterday, fantasy legend Ursula K. Le Guin left little doubt...

  • Stephen King in the New Yorker; how does he stack up?
    Stephen King in the New Yorker; how does he stack up?

    Stephen King has a short story in this week's New Yorker, "A Death," set in the Dakota territory in the 1880s.  There was a time when a writer who topped bestseller lists with terrifying stories of homicidal writers, sadistic fans and haunted pet cemeteries would not have fit inside a...

  • 'The Age of Earthquakes' looks back instead of forward
    'The Age of Earthquakes' looks back instead of forward

    I’m of two minds about “The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present” (Blue Rider: unpaged, $15 paper). On the one hand, this collaboration between writers Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist aspires to be a hip,...

  • Paula Deen signs book deal with Hachette
    Paula Deen signs book deal with Hachette

    Paula Deen, the disgraced celebrity chef whose Southern food empire crumbled after she admitted in 2013 to using racial slurs in the past, is attempting a comeback. Hachette Book Group on Monday announced a sales and distribution deal with the former television star's Paula Deen Ventures.

  • Veronica Roth, author of 'Divergent,' to launch new book series
    Veronica Roth, author of 'Divergent,' to launch new book series

    Veronica Roth, author of the wildly popular "Divergent" series, is starting on a new line of books. The as-yet untitled project is planned as a duology for young adults. It is to be published by Harper Collins.