A review of The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
At its best, fiction transports us to places we’ve never been, immersing us in the lives of people we would never meet. The most powerful fiction leaves behind indelible memories, endowing its characters with meaning more vivid than life. Louise Erdrich received the National Book Award for The Round House, which is powerful beyond measure and achieved all this and more.
Erdrich centers her tale on a bright 13-year-old boy named Joe Coutts. When we first encounter Joe, we think we may have met him before. He’s the nice kid who lives down the block or around the corner, riding his bike, usually with his friends, through a middle-class suburb, getting into mischief. His father’s a judge, his mother a civil servant. How could his life be all that interesting?
But Joe’s parents aren’t really like our neighbors, and they don’t live in a middle-class suburb or a prosperous urban neighborhood. Though well-educated and well-off by local standards, they are members of the tightly interwoven Chippewa community confined to a reservation in a barren stretch of North Dakota or Minnesota. And The Round House is a tale of a brutal crime that afflicts the Coutts family and lays bare the deep fault lines in their community.
As we get to know the Couttses and the many members of their extended family, we gradually become acquainted with the cruel legacy of racism that constrains their lives to this day. Sometimes we laugh along with them at the humor, marvel at the beauty of their story-telling, sigh with despair at the loss of the old ways. But we are never unaware of the uniquely disadvantaged circumstances they and their neighbors find themselves in.
The Round House is Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel. She is an enrolled (i.e., official) member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation whose grandfather was tribal chairman around the time of her birth in the 1950s. For three decades, she has been writing highly acclaimed works about her Native American heritage and the interaction of Native and majority communities. (Her father was German-American.)
An extended account of Erdrich’s life and career appears on Wikipedia, with numerous details about her long, tragic marriage to anthropologist Michael Dorris, whom she met as a student at Dartmouth College in the 1970s. Knowing some of the details of her life, it’s easy to understand how Erdrich can write of the pain her characters suffer.