“Unflinching” is a word that gets applied to too many books, in my opinion. But The Round House (winner of the 2012 National Book Award for fiction) deserves it. So, while I’m going to recommend that you read it, I would also urge you to wait until after the holidays if you are trying to stay holly jolly, which you’re probably failing at anyway, given recent events here in America.
I hadn’t read Louise Erdrich before this book. Now I’ll be reading the rest of her work.
When I finish most books, I try to think of other books that I would compare them to. In the case of The Round House, the book I felt the most strongly about by way of comparison was To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’ll return to that shortly.
On a reservation in North Dakota, 13 year old Joe’s mother is the victim of a hideous crime. I’m not going to go into the details, because the way in which the case unfolds is integral to the experience of reading the book. What matters is that she is lost to Joe as she sinks into a near-catatonic state, beyond depression, and possibly beyond hope of ever returning to her son’s life in the ways he needs.
The story isn’t really a mystery. The perpetrator is known fairly early in the book. Much of the tension comes from the fact that pursuing legal justice on the Ojibwe reservation is a thorny issue. Should the case be handled by the white criminal system or the tribal system?
Once Joe realizes that it’s not going to be a simple case, he enlists the help of three friends to get justice for his mother, and bring her back to life.
I mentioned To Kill A Mockingbird because this is a story of children who are suddenly thrown into the world of adults without adequate preparation (not that anything could prepare a young boy for an attack on his mother). Erdrich does a wonderful job, as did Lee, of separating the worlds of the adults and the children, and then letting the divisions dissolve and blend as the children are forced to grow up and learn that the world is harsh. She made me remember what it felt like to be a kid, to feel like you weren’t listened to, to feel frightened, and to occasionally feel invulnerable.
The Round House deserves a careful, slow reading. There are details that are easy to miss, and Erdrich does not spell out all of the cases’ elements with a neon sign. I’ve read complaints that her tangents into Ojibwe folkore and legend were tedious or irrelevant, but I found them fascinating and they added to the richness of the story for me.
It’s an intense book, a book that I greatly admire, but one that I don’t think I’ll read again.