Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cracks in a Family's Foundation: The Round House by Louise Erdrich


The Round House
by Louise Erdrich
Reviewed by Lara Smith

Louise Erdrich and I run hot and cold.  Having never met me, she doesn’t realize this.  But it’s true.

My first experience with her was with my book club (The Book Babes) in 2007 when we read The Master Butchers Singing Club.  It was stunning.  It was full of nuggets, rich and hearty, that when consumed warmed your belly.
Our songs travel the earth.  We sing to one another.  Not a single note is ever lost and no song is original.  They all come from the same place and go back to a time when only the stones howled.
Lovely, right?

In subsequent years we read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and Love Medicine, but some of the luster had worn off.  All of her stuff is pretty highly acclaimed, yet these didn’t have the same impact.  I didn’t think they were as good and the Book Babes agreed.  Well, except for two of them; there are always dissenters.  And despite this, Erdrich’s The Round House popped up again for possible book club selection (and with very mixed emotions from the Babes).

There was a potential saving grace.  The Round House actually won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012.

I love NBA winners (and most finalists, Little No Horse, notwithstanding).  The NBAs are like the fun, tipsy, true-color Golden Globes compared to the stuffy and uptight Academy Awards or Pulitzers.  So my hesitation turned to interest, and my interest turned to complete book club advocation when I realized I had mistakenly purchased The Round House while on my last outing to my favorite indie bookseller.  Hmmm.  Premonition?  Or poor book grabbing habits while wandering the aisles?  Regardless, I rallied and campaigned hard.  I secured enough votes for it and it wasn’t even my month to host.

Are you riveted yet?

Are you on the edge of your seat dying to know what I thought?

Or are you annoyed and just wanting me to get on with it?

Fine.

I loved it!  I can’t say enough good things about it.  It’s deserving of the highest praise, even in a year that had Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers.  The Round House rocked the house and Louise and I are back on.

So, where to begin?  How about with this:
Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation.  They were just seedlings with one or two healthy leaves.  Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks.  That had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry them loose.
The opening of Erdich’s thirteenth novel is foreboding, hinting of things to come.  It’s 1988 on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota where 13-year-old Joe Coutts loses his innocence and his mother.  Tribal enrollment specialist Geraldine Coutts leaves the house abruptly one Sunday afternoon to get a file from her office.  After a disconcerting amount of time has passed, Joe’s father, tribal judge Bazil Coutts, asks Joe where she is.  Unable to answer, they both become worried.
      Even if she’d gone to her sister Clemence’s house to visit afterward, Mom would have returned by now to start dinner.  We both knew that.  Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits.  We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones.  Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon, we were waiting for my mother to start ticking away on the evening.
      And so, you see, her absence stopped time.
Joe and his father crack the ice of frozen time and go out to find Geraldine.  The good news is that they find her, driving back to their home on from the main road.  The bad news is that when they return to the house, they learn she has been brutally attacked and assaulted.  And at that moment, as Bazil helps her out of the car, Geraldine collapses; falling swiftly into an impenetrable depression.  Unable to share any information about the attack, Joe and his father are rendered helpless.

But not for long.

Joe’s sole mission becomes to solve this horrible crime against his mother.  Seeking support from his three best friends, he makes his way to The Round House, a holy place on the reservation that he believes may be the scene of the crime.  He searches for clues, uncovers evidence and presses his father for details as Geraldine is forced to open up.  Complications arise.  Jurisdiction and criminal oversight become muddied and Joe becomes more focused on understanding how this could happen and who could have done this horrible act.

Joe visits the community’s clergy, Father Travis for guidance.
      The only answer to this, and it isn’t an entire answer, said Father Travis, is that God made human beings free agents.  We are able to choose good over evil, but the opposite too.  And in order to protect our human freedom, God doesn’t often, very often at least, intervene.  God can’t do that without taking away our moral freedom.  Do you see?
      No.
      But yeah.

      The only thing that God can do, and does all of the time, is to draw good from any evil situation.
And we know, even early on, that good does come of this.  Joe is a grown man telling this story.  He’s married and a practicing lawyer.  Getting from that horrible day to the present had to mean good was drawn out of evil.

As with her other stories, Erdrich tackles issues faced in Native American communities, and doesn’t shy away from spirituality and morality.  Her narrative construction with Joe as an adult reflecting on this life-altering summer worked.  She captured the male voice and perspective of a boy who loves his mother and a man reflecting back on a horrific time.  Filling out the story, Erdich has created a cast of characters that extends beyond the Coutts family, and runs the gamut of being endearing, appalling, hilarious and frustrating, with the suspect hiding out on the fringes of it all.  It’s at times nerve-wracking and in the end wholly satisfying.  While the attack on Geraldine was brutal and shocking, the conclusion will take you by surprise as well.  But as I closed the book and allowed the story to settle, I found it wrapped up in what might be the only way the Coutts family could move forward, patching up the cracks in the cement foundation of their home and their family.


Lara Smith, aka One Lit Chick, blogs and writes about books, lit crushes and life as book junkie.  She’s also one half the overly chatty book-reviewing duo Snotty Literati.  You can find her at www.onelitchick.com, where this review originally appeared, and on Twitter.


2 comments:

  1. Passionately argued, Lara, but not my experience with "The Roundhouse." Yes, I am an Erdrich fan but not indiscriminately. I probably go half and half for yae and nae of her published books. "Roundhouse" was a delightful surprise and one I wasn't expecting since I haven't much been over the moon ecstatically since her "Last Horse."

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  2. I've read all Louise Erdrich's books & this is the best yet! It was hard to put it down. I can't wait for her next book.

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