The Round House
By Louise Erdrich
Walking through the kitchen door, I heard a splintering crash. And then a keen, low, anguished cry. My mother was backed up to the sink, trembling, breathing heavily. My father was standing a few feet before her with his hands out, vainly groping in air the shape of her, as if to hold her without holding her. Between them on the floor lay a smashed and oozing casserole.
I looked at my parents and understood exactly what had happened. My father had come in -- surely Mom had heard the car, and hadn't Pearl barked? His footsteps, too, were heavy. He always made noise and was as I have mentioned a somewhat clumsy man. I'd noticed that in the last week he'd also shouted something silly when returning, like, I'm home! But maybe he'd forgotten. Maybe he'd been too quiet this time. Maybe he'd gone into the kitchen, just as he always used to, and then he'd put his arms around my mother as she stood with her back turned. In our old life, she would have kept working at the stove or sink while he peered over her shoulder and talked to her. They'd stand there together in a little tableau of homecoming. Eventually, he'd call me in to help him set the table. He'd change his clothes quickly while she and I put the finishing touches on the meal, and then we would sit down together. We were not churchgoers. This was our ritual. Our breaking bread, our communion. And it all began with that trusting moment where my father walked up behind my mother and she smiled at his approach without turning. But now they stood staring at each other helplessly over the broken dish.The narrator, Joe, describes in these two paragraphs of Louise Erdrich's National Book Award-winning novel, The Round House, how his family has been torn apart in the aftermath of his mother's rape. Erdrich uses this story of Geraldine Coutt's rape, and how her husband, Bazil, a tribal judge, is helpless as a man and as a tribal judge, to chronicle a family's hurt, a young man's growing up and how ineffectual the law is.
Joe is a teenager in the story, although he tells it from the vantage of an adult looking back. Erdrich thus avoids the young or possibly naive narrator who doesn't know the significance of what he is telling the reader.
The law makes it nearly impossible to prosecute his mother's rapist, even if the attacker is found. She's not certain where the actual rape occurred, if it was on the reservation or not. That means three jurisdictions investigate. Without the Violence Against Women Act, she would have had even less recourse against her attacker.
Joe and his best friends, giddy on Star Trek: The Next Generation and comic books, do a bit of investigating on their own. They do find out some information about the case, but in a way the legal case is the least important part of the story. Geraldine's withdrawal into herself, Bazil's attempts to care for her and Joe's coming-of-age as he discovers things about his parents, his neighbors and himself are more important than legal ramifications.
The Round House is where Geraldine was taken and the place she escaped from. It is a holy place that has now been defiled. The boys go to the Round House and discover possible clues. But they also swim, ride their bikes, tease each other, drink a couple of beers and gorge themselves on the cooking of a granny. Their days are brought to vibrant life, and contrast starkly with the way Joe's mother has gone upstairs to her room and shut herself in.
Erdrich's other characters also spring to life: war-wounded Father Travis; Joe's father the judge, who talked about the weather with a woman who may or may not know something about the attack on his mother; the grannies teasing the teenage boys about manly things. Such life in these things. They not only show the stark contrast at the scope of the tragedy of his mother's rape, they also simply celebrate life that is simply lived.
There are other contrasts in the way other characters treat family and loved ones. Linda was rejected by her mother at birth and adopted by an Indian family. But when her brother Linden needed her later, they sought her out. What she decided at the time and what she does in the novel may be surprising. And then there's Whitey, who owns the local gas station, and his white wife, Sonja, the former exotic dancer. She's motherly and selfish at the same time.
Erdrich has other characters who have appeared in her earlier novels make appearances or are referred to. Father Damien from the wonderful novel, Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, is mentioned in passing. And, of course, there is Mooshum, who her readers have seen at most stages of his life. He figures he's about 112 here. Joe himself is the grandson of the judge in The Plague of Doves.
Mooshum is a bridge between the past and present in this novel. Erdrich uses the device of having him talk in his sleep while Joe listens. Mooshum's stories seem like folk tales, legends, but they have a point in Joe's growing up and the acts he takes over the course of the summer following his mother's rape. Mooshum tells about Nanapush, who saw how to make the Round House by listening to an old female buffalo which he has killed and has burrowed into her carcass to survive a storm.
That Joe's mother, and another woman, were taken to the Round House after being raped, and that the site where their attacker tried to kill them, is this place to be respected, adds to their defilement. It is not just that they were attacked. It is not just that they were nearly murdered. The entire tribe's place of honor has been sullied.
The fact that the laws that have come to govern the tribe cannot protect the women is not glossed over. It is a shameful fact. News reports during the last Congress, when the Violence Against Women Act was held up, noted that 34 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women are raped.
There comes a point in the long summer of his mother shutting herself away that his father brings out all the silverware in the kitchen and aligns them on the table in a pattern only he can see, built around a moldy casserole that neighbors brought after the attack and which had been forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. The judge is building bridges between Johnston v. McIntosh, the 1823 Supreme Court case that codified the European/white land grab, and the day when tribes are allowed
"the right to prosecute criminals of all races on all lands within our original boundaries". Every small case the judge decides builds toward the day.
The novel concerns itself with both this right to be a sovereign people with all rights that come with existence, especially rights within one's property, and with the ways in which women are disrespected both by law (with the treatment of rape victims and the limits of prosecution against rapists in both white and Indian jurisdiction) and by men (the way Joe considers former stripper Sonja who helps him after he makes an important find). There is much balance in the novel, such as the wealth of healthy sex jokes amongst the grown-ups as counterpoint to both the trauma of Joe's mother's rape and the innocence of the boys.
Mostly, the novel is about love. The love that Joe's parents, Bazil and Geraldine, have for each other and for their son, and he for them. The love that Whitey and Sonja have. The love that Joe's friend Cappy experiences for the first time with the beautiful Zelia, who comes to the reservation from Helena on a mission to convert them all back to Catholicism. The love boys have for each other when they are as close as brothers and stand with each other whenever one is hurting. The love that knows when it is broken.
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