The Round House IMG_4436

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface because Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly along, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. 

While his father, a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joes becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusty friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning. 

4/5 stars. Historical Fiction (?), Native American, Rape

Joe, a thirteen-year-old Native American boy, discovers his mom has been raped. She can’t leave her room. She can’t get out of bed. She won’t eat or look at the flowers Joe and his father planted outside, the one’s she loved and slaved over every other year. Joe’s father sleeps in the sewing room, instead of next to her like he used to. Joe, desperate to help his mom back into the woman she used to be, starts searching, listening at doors, inserting himself in conversations – doing anything he can to piece together what happened that fateful night. Even knowing the identity of the man who did it, Joe and the justice system are powerless to keep him locked away.

Okay, I don’t particularly know what to call The Round House for a genre. Google says ‘political’. Um, what does that mean? I mean sure, it does discuss some political things and have a moralistic message inside about politics between Native American and ‘white’ lands, but I don’t know, I am not convinced to say it is a ‘political’ novel. So I went on a search. Someone said ‘thriller’. Someone else said ‘modern classic’. I don’t think The Round House fits into either of these categories. While I don’t think the characters or the main plot points are true, I think it is more along the lines of historical fiction, describing what life in a 1988 North Dakota reservation is like. So, I’m going with that, although that might not be entirely right. Also, not the most kid friendly. A lot of crude jokes.

On some level, there is an honesty, or a strictly male feeling about this book that reminds me of Drown by Junot Diaz and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. While these other two are more similar to each other in the raw nature humans are presented – a real roughness that we always try to hide behind heroic words – there is still something that makes me think of those other books.

Perhaps this is due to the main character, Joe Coutts. He is so ‘boy’. I love reading stories with such a male feeling about them. It’s not like ‘oh, so manly,’ swooning over the characters or anything, I just love stories where there are boys being boys, making dumb jokes with each other and hanging out. Maybe because I am a girl who never had guy friends as a kid and now seeing friendships like that is foreign and interesting? I don’t know why I like them and, because I have no experience, I can’t really say that I am reading about authentic male friendships, but the relationships between Joe and his friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, are probably my favorite moments about this book. Hey, man, you are struggling with something and want us all to meet you at this place? Sure, see ya there. You’re getting chased by a priest? Bro, just get to this point and we will have your bike ready for you to jump onto. They don’t ask pesky questions into each other’s lives, they are just there for each other, a solid presence, a constant that can be relied upon.

The characters really took me for a loop. There are so many characters in this book, so many that they are hard to keep track of. Some could have been combined or eliminated. However, there were many characters essential to the plot and the character development of the story, like Sonja, the ex-stripper who has been included into the folds of the Native American community even though it is not her heritage. Crude speaking grandparents are all over the place, and while most of them don’t add to the plot, they are such a spark of humor in the book. The boys rehearse to each other before they go to a grandparent’s house words that they can’t say. They agree to get in and get out, as quick as possible. So these characters may not be essential to the plot, but they are essential to the creation of the beings that Joe and his friends become. Also the friends talking about the grandparents creates a deep community between the friends. They have done this before, so often it is automatic.

While the friends Zack and Angus aren’t the most defined of characters, sort of a packaged deal, Cappy is. He’s the looker of the four boys. He gets the girl, he’s the daring one, he’s the one who gets in fights. He is the exact opposite of Joe – the smart one who never gets in trouble, who follows all of the rules. It is interesting to see that at the beginning of the book, these two characters are a foil of each other. Cappy is put in place to make Joe more… Joe. Cappy having the hair and the outgoing nature highlights the opposite in Joe. But in the end of the book, it is like they even out. They meet in the middle to take an action both Cappy and Joe.

While searching through some other reviews to see what people who calling the genre of The Round House, I noticed some people were mentioning that this book strayed often from the main point of the book, so much so that it distracted them. I can imagine why they might say that, probably about the moments I liked so much with the boys. However, I think, if that is the reason, their reasons are misplaced. This is not a book of plot. This is a book of character and those moments are meant to really show who Joe is, who he becomes by the end of the book, and what he experiences that pushes from the Joe at the beginning of the book to the Joe at the end. I almost wanted to see if these people had reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird and if they said the same thing. In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird has all these random scenes which don’t particularly tie together until the the last couple of pages, at which time, everything ties into a little bow. But before that moment, if you don’t know the main points of the book previously, the reader is probably stumbling along, asking themselves, “Okay, great. Kids playing and being kids, getting into fights. Great. But what do all of these things have to do with each other? Where are we going?” With The Round House, I felt like I knew where it was going. It kept checking in with the mom and the rape, showing how centered Joe was on finding justice and restoring his mother into the woman she was before anything happened.

I do agree with these people mentioning The Round House going on tangents and that perhaps the pacing was a little slow. Cutting out some of these character and environment building moments would help to increase that pace. I didn’t mind the slow points though because I was marveling in the beautiful writing of this book. There was so much imagery describing the people and the place, yet it didn’t feel like I was spending time reading about that. Generally, I get bored. I’m like, yes, great. Are we done yet? Or I’ll skip ahead a bit to dialogue or those tiny one to five word sentences that signal something just went DOWN. Like, “And then I fell.” Or “The door creaked open.” Or just something like a name of the villain in the book, announcing their presence. Or, a thought-friend being outed as an enemy and the main character making the connection of who it is.

Another thing to mention about the writing of this book is that there is basically no punctuation. I mean, there are commas and periods, but there are no quotation marks around the dialogue. This really limited my jumping around on a page (because I seriously have a problem where I just read all of the dialogue on a double paged spread and then go back and read the descriptions so I know what is going on). When I stuck with the page, I didn’t get lost in who was speaking, or what was dialogue and what was descriptions/movement. It was quite interesting to read and consider the difference between this and other books, and thinking about how some characters think to themselves, like they could be talking to other characters. Definitely something to consider when choosing the format of a book before writing it.

Seeing as this is ‘historical fiction’, or at least placed in the real world, I don’t have much to say about the concept. I’m not like, “Oh my god, this is so creative that the author decided to write something about rape! Who would have thought of something so creative?!?” It’s just not one of those topics. That said, it is also not a topic that I thought was overdone. I think it was handled with grace and while I don’t know anyone with this experience, the struggles the mom has when trying to get her life back (and her failure to) seems authentic.

Overall, I enjoyed this one, especially because it was out of my comfort zone genre-wise. It does strike me as a ‘school book’ as some just seem to, I guess because of the content, but it is one that I wouldn’t hate reading in school. I am a little rebellious when people tell me to read something, especially if it is assigned as homework. This is certainly a book I think people interested in reading about the real world should read.

Also, this is a University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Reads top pick for the 2017-2018 school year. The college decided the messages are something they want the community to focus on, and, if the author is available to come to the campus, events will be planned around this book to provide discussion points about topics like sexual assault and Native American rights.

2 thoughts on “The Round House by Louise Erdrich

  1. This is a great review and very well worded! It doesn’t sound like something I would necessarily enjoy but sometimes reading out of your comfort zone is definitely something you should do. I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

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