Every time I read a Louise Erdrich novel, I expect it to be as captivating as Love Medicine, but nothing has lived up to it yet. The Round house is okay—sometimes compelling, sometimes confusing, and sometimes tedious and dragging. The story, told by Joe, the 13-year-old narrator, takes place on an Indian reservation (as do most of Erdrich’s stories). Joe’s dad is a tribal lawyer and his mom is a tribal clerk who knows the ins and outs of all tribal relationships and transactions. The central plot, which we find out early on (so no spoiler alert here), is that Joe’s mom is brutally raped by a white man. But the rape takes place in a sort of “no man’s land” where it’s unclear who has jurisdiction over whom. As a result, though it’s clear who the perpetrator is, there is no trial or punishment. This is essentially a story of a boy learning that sometimes there is no justice.
The most moving parts of the story are the moments between Joe and his parents. Joe and his dad plant flowers, they tend to their mother in every way they know how, they speak softly, they encourage, and they remain patient. But she is unreachable. She cannot recover from the rape, and she becomes a shadow of herself. Joe tries and struggles to understand this, and eventually, he does seem to reconnect with his mom on some level, but it’s chilling to witness the suffering.
The confusing moments come when we are expected to understand this “no man’s land” through Erdrich’s detailed descriptions of the rape scene in which Joe’s mom is blindfolded and thus does not know precisely where the violent act takes place. From the countless questions posed by Joe’s father and his clear frustration at not being able to pursue a conviction, we are to discern that tribal laws do not have jurisdiction over non-tribal members on tribal land. Or maybe it’s non-tribal land? Much of this is not clear, and I would have liked a better explanation of exactly why the guy could not be prosecuted and how tribal law vs. federal law works. In reading the Afterward, we get insight into the Violence Against Women Act that was recently argued in Congress, so it seems that much of the novel is a response to the importance of prosecuting these acts of violence—regardless of where they take place. Additionally, the story becomes more complex as the motive is tied to additional characters, blackmail, a corrupt governor, and a wrecked tribal family. But I found that some of these connections were a little too subtle. Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough, but I felt like I was constantly missing important links that clarified the motive.
The tedious moments came from characters that were undeveloped (Joe’s friends all ran together in my head—I could never distinguish who was who), characters that didn’t seem that important, and Native American folklore thrown in that didn’t seem to fit the flow of the story. Erdrich often feels a little heavy-handed with tribal culture, and this book is no exception. Perhaps part of why I have such fond memories of Love Medicine is because that was the first Erdrich novel I read, and tribal culture was newer to me back then. Or maybe it was a much better constructed novel. I’m not sure.
Though I didn’t love this book, I did like it. Erdrich often writes poetically, which ties us to her characters and her story both imagistically and emotionally. Because of this, there were moments when I couldn’t put it down. (fiction)