Photograph: Eric Miller/AP







(Photograph: Eric Miller/AP)

There I was, hiding from my family, crouching in the bedroom and clutching The Round House by Louise Erdrich, unable to move and unwilling to be disturbed until I finished Every Last Word.

Now, about a month later, I can’t stop thinking about this book.

In case you’re unfamiliar: The Round House follows 13-year-old Joe, an Ojibwe Indian residing on a reservation in North Dakota, in the aftermath of his mother’s brutal rape and beating by a non-Indian.  She was attacked somewhere near the tribe’s ceremonial structure known as the round house.  The land surrounding this structure is a jigsaw puzzle of state, federal and tribal territories and jurisdictions, making prosecution of the crime nearly impossible.  The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction for 2012.

Why is this book magnificent?

Ms. Erdrich took a well-known problem in Indian County and used art to bring the problem to the attention of a wider audience.  It is estimated that one in three Native women will report being raped in her lifetime, and it is also estimated that of those rapes reported, 86% of the perpetrators are non-Native men.  The Supreme Court in the late 1970s divested tribes of the ability to prosecute non-Indians, so most of these crimes have gone unpunished, as it nearly did in The Round House.  (Note: with reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012, tribal nations may now prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence and violations of protecting orders — and I truly believe that this novel helped bring this issue to the forefront.)

Erdrich is a master in the creation of colorful, authentic and original characters.  One of my favorite characters in this book was Grandma Thunder, whom Joe describes as one of those “Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take, and who are let loose in their old age to shock the young,” which she accomplishes by reminiscing about the physical details of her former lovers in such detail as to completely horrify Joe and his friends.

The decision to use a young narrator helped with the delivery of enough background and law to readers unfamiliar with federal Indian law to have a clear understanding of the event and problem, but without feeling like an “information dump” or like one was sitting in a class at law school.  This is NOT easy to do!  I’m keeping this book on my shelf as a future reference.

In writing classes, we talk about making our scenes “work hard,” meaning that they move plot and develop character.  Erdrich’s scenes are not only beautifully written, but they do all the things that great writing is supposed to do.

There’s a scene early in the book, where Joe and his father have returned home in time for dinner, which has been prepared by Joe’s mother, who has very recently been sexually and physically assaulted.  She hadn’t heard them coming inside, and had been surprised and terrified to see Joe’s father walk in to the kitchen.  By the time Joe arrives, the dinner casserole is spilled on the floor and his father gropes in the air for his wife, who is trembling and pulling away from her small family – both physically and emotionally.

The moment in time captured by this scene can’t be more than half a minute.  The scene is relatively short – not even two pages – yet it communicates an enormous amount of information and pushes the book forward.  We learn characteristics about the father, about his heavy footsteps and clumsy walk, as well as his post-assault habit of making a lot of extra noise when walking through the house, so as not to scare his wife.  We see the terrified emotional state of the mother, and get a glimpse into how she will initially cope with the assault, which adds to the book’s plot.  We see Joe begin to take on an adult role, something that leads to a defining moment in the book, as he considers the different ways the scenario might have gone, creating a better outcome for his family.  Instead, there was a “frozen suspension of feeling” emanating from his mother, which becomes such a problem that he feels compelled to fight his way to justice for his family.


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