In a nutshell: The Round House is about Joe, a 13-year-old boy living on a North Dakota reservation in 1988. At the start of the novel, Joe’s mother is raped and nearly killed by a perpetrator she either won’t or can’t identify. Throughout the summer, Joe grapples with the emotional aftershock of his irrevocably changed family, and also seeks to find the person who attacked his mother.
Although the premise of The Round House is grim, I wouldn’t say that this is a dark-toned novel overall. Erdrich lets a lot of light and kindness and even humor thread through the story, mainly in her depiction of the various characters that populate the reservation’s community.
One of my favorite side characters was Linda, a white woman who was raised on the reservation by an Ojibwe hospital staff member after her parents rejected her at birth for a congenital deformity. I liked how Erdrich stopped Joe’s narrative a third of the way through for “Linda’s story” which is engrossing in its own right while also shedding light into Joe’s story. Erdrich also interrupts the narrative later for a folktale/history told by an elderly relative of Joe’s named Mooshum. I use the word “interrupts” but I don’t mean it negatively. Instead Linda and Mooshum’s stories show the importance of telling and listening to each others’ stories. As Teresa of Shelf Love said in her recent review of The Round House the book conveys the idea that “Our stories are our own yet part of others’ stories.” Joe’s mother, Geraldine, also gets a chance to tell her story, after a period of lengthy silence.
I liked that Geraldine – though usually off-screen for the events of this book – isn’t treated as a cipher, as just someone to be revenged. There’s a point where Joe, out of fear, tries to provoke her into leaving the bedroom where she has sequestered herself. She says to him: “Now you listen to me, Joe. You will not badger me or harass me. You will leave me to think the way I want to think, here. I have to heal any way I can.”
Back to the light and kindness and humor, much of the story involves Joe’s friendships with three other boys, who nerd out over Star Trek and get themselves into mild trouble by drinking beer and crashing church youth group events. This kids-of-the-summer vibe brought to mind the appealing kids of the movie Super 8. (In discussion of this book, Teresa compared it to Stand By Me, which is a much more classic reference, but alas not a movie I’ve seen.) The Round House includes the kind of tales that adults relish telling about their own childhood, as in, remember the time Cappy ill-advisedly felt compelled to confess a particular sin to the priest and the priest chased him around the reservation. This kind of ready-made tall tale is juxtaposed with characters’ uncomfortable decisions to keep secrets from each other.
The Round House also reminded me of Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season. Both are coming-of-age tales told by an older version of the protagonist who drops minor hints about the future. Namely, these crucial events in their youth help decide their future career trajectories. Doig’s book is set about a century before Erdrich’s, but in the fellow prairie state of Montana. Doig and Erdrich both richly depict the dynamics of family and community.
What I also appreciated about Erdrich was her very slight supernatural touches, like a matter-of-fact acceptance of seeing ghosts on occasion. I also liked how the elderly relative of Mooshum has no known age and appears timeless, a tantalizing human bridge to an earlier era that was almost outside of history. That aspect reminded me of some of Lee Smith’s books about Appalachia, like Fair and Tender Ladies or On Agate Hill.
I will be sure to read more Erdrich in the future. This was the first book I’ve read by her, despite always meaning to read works like Love Medicine and the Master Butchers Singing Club. I discovered my co-worker Kim is a huge Erdrich fan and she highly recommended The Last Miracle at Little No Horse.
Booklust – “I loved that Erdrich showed just how flawed everyone was, but also made clear the strong bond that tied them all together.”
The Boston Bibliophile – “What I found was a novel that was at once easy to read and difficult to fully assimilate . . . The smoothness of Erdrich’s prose belies the uncompromising toughness beneath the surface.”
The Mookse and the Gripes – “The summertime coming-of-age stuff was partially there to show Joe’s own tendencies toward women, but for the most part it isn’t done well enough to serve anything other than a conventional, rote story.”