Just before N. Scott Momaday won the a 1969 Pulitzer Prize for "House Made of Dawn," Marshall Sprague reviewed the book for the New York Times and began: "This first novel, subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware, is the work of a young Kiowa Indian who teaches English and writes poetry at the University of California in Santa Barbara. That creates a difficulty for a reviewer right away. American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities either."
Since 1969 much has changed. We recognize Sprague's review as both inaccurate and crude. And we know that Native writers occupy prominent places in the global literary establishment.
Not only do they teach in top-ranking universities, their novels and poetry are standbys on high school and university curricula, on best-seller lists, and in book clubs. Arguably, Momaday's Pulitzer had much to do with this change: an award that opened the publishing world for a generation of now-familiar writers such as Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, David Treuer and Louise Erdrich. Yet, since 1969, no other Native writer has won a Pulitzer and until now, none had won a National Book Award. For this reason, Erdrich's "The Round House," this year's bold and heartfelt National Book Award winner for fiction, offers a chance to reflect on what it means for a Native novel to win such an award today.
Erdrich, who in 1982 won the first Nelson Algren Short Story Award, has earned a reputation for writing lyrical novels about North Dakota. Many of these are set against the brutal legacy of American colonization, and Erdrich is known for casting scenes of poverty and violence in gorgeous prose. For instance, one of her most celebrated novels, "Tracks," describes the aftermath of a tuberculosis epidemic:
"We felt the spirits of the dead so near that at length we just stopped talking. This made it worse. Their names grew within us, swelled to the brink of our lips, forced our eyes open in the middle of the night. We were filled with the water of the drowned, cold and black, airless water that lapped against the seal of our tongues or leaked slowly from the corners of our eyes. Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted. Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us."
At the same time, Erdrich's novels imagine fantastical, often hilarious and uplifting human worlds, made up of vast families, unexpected transformations and stories of miraculous survival. They are novels that celebrate the power of narrative to out-charm tragedy and to invent new realities when the old become impossible.
Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, N.D., an Ojibwe tribal member. Her grandfather was a tribal chairman, her parents were school teachers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school, and many of her siblings remain involved in tribal health and environmental issues. She has said that their work makes what might be perceived as the "magical realism" of her novels "seem ho-hum." "My writing," she said in a Paris Review interview, "comes from ordinary life."
In "The Round House," this is true in a new and startling way. Although its setting is familiar (North Dakota, 1988), and although we recognize characters and families from earlier books, "The Round House" marks a step away from the "magical" worlds to which Erdrich's readers have grown accustomed. The novel is narrated by a 13-year old boy, Joe, who (with his father, a tribal court judge) discovers in the book's first pages that his mother (Geraldine, the tribe's enrollment officer) has been viciously raped. What follows is a detective story, as Joe and his father piece together the crime, struggle to support Geraldine and each other, and languish in the bizarre legal limbo that exists for "major" crimes committed by non-Natives on tribal land. As the book's afterword makes clear, it is a plot directly informed by the real impotence of American law to stop sexual violence against Native women. Citing Amnesty International, Erdrich writes: "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults on Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted." The afterword lists organizations working "to restore sovereign justice and ensure safety for Native women," and hauntingly concludes: "The events in this book are loosely based on so many different cases, reports, and stories that the outcome is pure fiction." In a literal sense that may be true, but this is a new variety of fiction for Erdrich; one that illustrates the reality that American interference in tribal law exposes Native women to sexual violence.
Reviews of "The Round House" have pointed out that this is Erdrich's first work of detective fiction, a genre that typically rewards the gathering of evidence and the diagnosis of motive with legal and narrative resolution. However, even in the early stages of Erdrich's novel, it is clear that it is the expectation of resolution itself that is thrown into question. After taking Geraldine to the hospital, Joe asks about her attacker: "Will we find him?" But the assurance of his father's reply ("We will") dissolves when Joe rejoins: "And then what?" A question his father, the judge, can't answer.
It is by way of this silence that this book becomes a novel of education for Joe and for Erdrich's readers. As Joe and his father peruse old court cases and huddle over the family's Handbook of Federal Indian Law, we also come to see how tribal judicial autonomy is eroded by cases and policies, often a century old: Ex Parte Crow Dog, the Major Crimes Act, Oliphant v. Suquamish. Joe, his parents and a lively cast of friends and relatives do learn more about the crime, and their investigation gives meaning to the complicated task of healing. One of the true accomplishments of the novel, however, is that this meaning is never simple, never easy or satisfying.
For this reason it works especially well that Joe is only 13 years old. As it is for many adolescents, the certainties of Joe's life (his mother's pain, his father's frustration, some people's cruelty, others' generosity) don't add up to anything that feels whole. Instead learning more actually feels disconcerting, a sense we share with Joe. We wait with him for the big reveal that Conan Doyle teaches us to expect. And when we don't get it, we too are left with an unnerving awareness of our own limited power and patience.
This is one of the reasons Erdrich's National Book Award matters. "The Round House" is not about answering the same kinds of questions that Momaday's "House Made of Dawn" was understood to answer: What "it is like" to be Native or What Natives "represent"? In fact, what matters about Erdrich's National Book Award has little to do with any simple idea of its Nativeness at all. Instead, it matters because of the kinds of questions it allows us to ask.
Late in the novel, Joe learns that his mother's attacker is released from jail, and he lashes out at his father: "All you catch are drunks and hot dog thieves ... You've got zero authority, Dad, one big zero, nothing you can do. Why do it anyway?" His father explains the process of building legal precedent: "Everything we do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. We try to press against the boundaries of what we are allowed ... What I am doing now is for the future, though it may seem small, or trivial, or boring, to you."
It is unsettling advice, which doesn't seem to apply to the particularity of Joe's experience. But it is a way of understanding why we devote ourselves to political struggles, or to each other, that doesn't depend on inherited notions of justice or love. For Joe, it is a moment of originality — the start of his own career as a lawyer — and for us, it is a moment that starts us thinking about the lasting value of Erdrich's book: not a work that has to mean or represent something familiar, or some thing at all. But one that dares to ask questions with open answers; to start stories that don't have tidy endings.
Matt Hooley is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at The College of Wooster (Ohio). He writes and teaches about Native literature, modernism and the environment.
"The Round House"
By Louise Erdrich, Harper, 336 pages, $27.99