On a dusty reservation in North Dakota, 13 year-old Joe Coutts and his father Bazil are upended when their mother/wife Geraldine is absent, first literally and later psychically, because of a heinous crime.
“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 us ticking away on the evening. And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”
Young Joe is coming of age in the smallest of communities, where traditions are the rule of the day and where, even in good circumstances, hardship and struggle are all too familiar. Joe’s father, Bazil, is a respected judge and community leader, in whose quiet shadow Joe wrestles over who he will become.
“I resented the fact that I didn’t have a brand-new name to distinguish me from the tedious Coutts line – responsible, upright, even offhandedly heroic men who drank quietly, smoked an occasional cigar, drove a sensible car, and only showed their mettle by marrying smarter women.”
Initially, Joe and Bazil acknowledge that they are reliant on one another to get through their present trauma. As they work side by side to try to figure out who has victimized Geraldine, Joe begins to feel and be treated like the adult he yearns to become.
“I understood that I was going to help. My father was treating me as his assistant. He knew, of course, about my surreptitious reading. …He nodded again, raised his eyebrows a fraction, and lip-pointed at the stack near my elbow. We began to read. And it was then that I began to understand who my father was, what he did every day, and what had been his life.”
Like many folks touched deeply by trauma and impassioned about an issue, Joe gradually forms his own view of the situation. For this young man, he finds himself slowly pulling away from his father and veering perilously towards vigilantism.
This is 1988, and it is painfully clear that the twisted morass of laws, jurisdictions, and age-old prejudices which cloud life on the reservation stymie any attempts at justice. Heartbreakingly, Erdrich reminds her readers in the afterword that though this particular narrative is based in the recent past, the situation remains largely unimproved. Crimes, particularly those like the one central to this story, often go unpunished because of jurisdictional arguments and the complications of who can and should prosecute each case.
Though Erdrich has chosen to tell this story through the voice of a young man, it is a staunchly feminist narrative. Perhaps Erdrich’s choice to populate her story with men is in some ways a boon; reading about the impact on and struggles with feminism from the male perspective may resonate with a wider audience. After all feminism isn’t just for women. As the cliched definition says, feminism is the radical notion that women are people.
“The Round House” is all about the centrality of female strength, a gravitational force which holds many families together and keeps their engines clicking. Louise Erdrich, as always, has brilliant insight into women’s roles and life, politics, and prejudice among and about Native Americans. Erdrich writes with a steady hand, sharing her thoughts quietly and plainly, often with an imagined twinkle in her eye. In “The Round House” Erdrich’s message was painful, her telling of it superb.
“There are Indian grandmas who get too much church and Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take, and who are let loose in their old age to shock the young. Zack had one of those last sort. Grandma Ignatia Thunder. She had been to Catholic boarding school but it just hardened her, she said, the way it hardened the priests. She spoke Indian and talked about the men’s secrets. When she and Mooshum got together to reminisce about the old days, my father said they talked so dirty the air round them turned blue.”