Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Round House, is a little bit of a mystery, a little bit of revenge and a little bit of a coming-of-age story for teenage boys living on Native American reservations. This menagerie is paradoxically the book’s greatest strength and weakness.
On one hand, Erdrich manages the plot expertly. It seems like the plot is meandering from one thread to the next, but then the climax causes all the disparate elements to collide. Instead of a crash, however, the result manages to be a cohesive conclusion which, one realizes as the book concludes, was being built up from page one.
The narrator is thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts. The book begins with his mother being sexually assaulted and consequently traumatized to the point that she barely speaks and refuses to say who committed the heinous crime. Thus the mystery portion opens the novel and allows Joe and his three friends to assign themselves the task of finding the assailant. Some interesting segments occur during this act, including the discovery of a doll stuffed with cash floating in a lake, and Joe makes actual headway in the case by discovering evidence that the police missed. But then his mother conjures forth a form of emotional and spiritual recovery and, little more than halfway through the book with only one red herring, reveals the assailant. Thus begins the revenge tale, which is where the book suddenly becomes a thrilling and truly surprising page turner.
Interspersed throughout this overarching plot are episodes of life on the reservation involving Joe having to grow up quickly in order to deal with the horrifying circumstances in which he finds himself. As stated before, this all comes together in the end, but it concurrently feels as though some of the emotion has to be shunted aside for comedic scenes.
It is difficult to feel the horror of his mother’s sexual assault when Joe is idolizing his aunt’s breasts and he and his friends, after discussing all the dirty words not to say around a lascivious grandmother, have to take a “three minute” break in the woods. Indeed, the boys almost seem as though Erdrich is going through a checklist of teenage male stereotypes: they like breasts, Star Trek: The Next Generation, disobeying elders, beer and do not forget breasts. Yet when Joe is secluded or alone with his best friend Cappy, he manages to become a more complicated human being. Other characters are invigorated with life, such as Joe’s grandfather Mooshum, a post-centenarian, whiskey-loving wise man who tells tales in his sleep, or subtly developed like the priest Father Travis, who has a penchant for shooting gophers with air rifles.
But, the four boys aside, Erdrich has a keen eye for community, and it is the scenes in which all the major characters are present which ring out to be the truest. Mooshum’s birthday party or reservation festivals allow the characters a chance to demonstrate their individuality by communicating in one large community event . At the same time, they are able to impact each other’s lives in a complex convergence. A single person affects the group while individuals are likewise affected by the group.
It is the stunning finale which ultimately seals The Round House as a memorable novel about a community and the dark secrets and social nuances which hold it together. Joe’s narration is silky smooth and occasionally laced with sudden bouts of lyricism, as if he is finding his voice as one reads. Erdrich has crafted an intimate novel of family and community which also contains truths for all forms of societies, wherever humans dwell alongside their fellow man.