Tag Archives: Native Americans

Louise Erdrich’s haunting new novel of a brutal crime on the reservation


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.

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Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction

1491: Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before Columbus

A review of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492 — and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong.

As Charles C. Mann explains, in this recently revised edition of his 2006 bestseller, latter-day investigations in all these fields have turned up persuasive evidence that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.

  • “In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire.” And population density both in the Andes and in Mesoamerica was the highest in the world: “the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants.” Central Mexico housed more than twice as many people per square mile as China or India.
  • The deciding factors in the Europeans’ legendary ease of conquest were disease (smallpox above all) and political infighting within native communities. Compiling recent studies, Mann estimates that “In the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died” — and, more to the point, smallpox and other virulent diseases sped through both North and South America far more quickly than the conquerors. “Smallpox visited before anyone in South America had even seen Europeans . . . The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.”
  • The legendary bloodthirstiness of the Aztec (more properly called the Triple Alliance) needs to be seen in context. “If England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortes estimated for the (Aztec) empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England.”
  • “The corpus of writings in classical Nahuatl, the language of the Alliance, is even larger than the corpus of texts in Classical Greek.”
  • Recent archaeological excavations have pushed back the date of arrival of homo sapiens in the Western Hemisphere from around 9000 B.C.E. to as much as 30,000 or 40,000 BCE. One site on the Peruvian coast, Aspero, “might win the title of the world’s oldest city — the place where human civilization began.” And “people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.”
  • The landscape encountered, first by the Pilgrims and later by American settlers pushing ever further West, was anything but the virgin forest and prairie they thought it was. “Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowbooys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first.” On the Eastern seaboard, too, Indians extensively used fire, clearing tracts for farming and completely transforming the land before Europeans ever set sight on the coast.
  • Even the Amazon basin, long thought to be pristine territory, was home to millions of Indians long before disease introduced by the Spaniards decimated them and left their extensive works throughout the region to the ravages of rain and the forest. Mann notes that “the Amazon’s wealth of fruits, nuts, abnd palms is justly celebrated” and adds a comment from one of his innumerable interviews with scholars: “‘Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest there and constantly pick fruit from trees. That’s because people planted them. They’re walking through old orchards.”

As Mann makes clear throughout 1491, practically all these findings have their detractors. Some cling to old findings (often their own) and simply refuse to accept changed views. Others criticize the methodology (or the investigator). But that’s to be expected. In fact, a collection of scientists in just about any field will behave like the Israeli Knesset, divided into nearly as many factions as there are scientists. But the case Mann sets forth is compelling, controversy notwithstanding. And for anyone with even a smidgen of interest in history, anthropology, paleontology, or ecology, these revelations must be surprising. For a history buff like me, they’re mind-bending.

Mann is a science journalist who serves as a contributing editor to Science and The Atlantic Monthly. His research is thorough, as is evident with a glance at the extensive bibliography and notes crammed into both this book and its successor, 1493 (reviewed earlier at http://bit.ly/weutM4).


Filed under History, Nonfiction