Funny how a few snarky reviews in major newspapers can turn readers away from works richly worth their interest. Despite such reviews, The Round House deserves the comparison it is acquiring as the Native American To Kill a Mockingbird. And yes, it deserved the National Book Award. Not just because it is narrated by a delightfully frank and not-so-innocent boy, as Mockingbird’s story was told by the fearless, hawk-eyed girl Scout. Nor because its subject is the widespread, unprosecuted rape of Native women by white men.
Here’s why it deserves that prestigious award. Like all great writing—it gets us to pay extraordinary attention.
Erdrich’s previous fiction often used a variety of narrators, to strong effect. Some critics whine that she should have kept this approach. But here her subject is so intimate, so fraught with potential revulsion, that a different kind of genius was necessary. The author says the voice of an adolescent boy came to her as she was driving home from a visit to her parents, and she had to pull over to the side of the road to listen to it. That was a decisive act of creative attention itself.
In The Round House, Joe Coutts is the 13-year-old son of a North Dakota tribal judge and his beautiful, much younger wife Geraldine. She is raped by a man who came from behind and threw a pillowcase over her head so she could not see him or whether the assault was on Native or non-Native land. In fiction—as in fact happens to so many Native American women—her rapist is a white man who cannot be brought to justice in today’s unfair mixture of toothless tribal and indifferent federal law.
Rape and the demeaning legal system (not) serving Indians in this country deserves far more attention than it gets, but it’s too grim a subject for most readers. In Erdrich’s novel we are pulled in almost unawares when Joe’s account begins. It’s a late Sunday afternoon in June, when he and his father notice that his mother is not home to start fixing dinner.
“Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” Joe observes. “We absorb their comings and going 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.”
That got my attention. Doors didn’t simply open on a story of rape. I was jolted by a young man’s ageless insight—that men rely on the women they love to dance them through time.
Joe describes the impact of the crime against his mother in his adolescent voice, full of guileless asides and goof-ball, Trekkie dialogue with his pals on the reservation. We almost forget that he is looking back with the older eyes, and eloquence, of the lawyer and tribal judge he, like his father, has become.
Off go Judge Coutts and his son in a borrowed car to find his mother, only to see her whiz by in the opposite direction. Joe recalls how his father laughed, “so relieved,” and said, “She forgot. Went to the grocery and forgot it was closed. Mad now she wasted gas. Oh, Geraldine!” How those last two words are spoken convinces Joe that his father “had always been in love with my mother,” and “never stopped being grateful that she had married him and right afterward given him a son,” when he’d been resigned to being last in his family’s line.
Readers walk with them up to Geraldine’s parked car. We see her sitting rigidly in the driver’s seat, and realize she wasn’t at all mad about wasting gas. She is traumatized, covered in vomit and blood, and smelling oddly of gasoline…a hint of how the perp had intended to kill her before she got away. Each horrible step is recounted with a fresh juvenile grace.
Joe describes his father delicately lifting Geraldine out from behind the wheel, opening the door to the car’s back seat, “and then, as though they were dancing in some awful way,” maneuvers her delicately onto the edge of the seat, very slowly laying her back and onto her side. “She was silent, though now she moistened her cracked, bleeding lips with the tip of her tongue. I saw her blink, a little frown.”
Wow. The boy watches so intensely that he catches these small movements, where there had been none before. We are right there with him. Our gaze sharpens to keep up with his.
That gives a taste of the calibre of observation we’re dealing with in this narration, the quality of attention it inspires. We’re not surprised when Joe takes it on himself, against the warnings of both parents, to investigate his mother’s crime scene, and hears her cries rising up from the floorboards of the old sanctified round house, where the tribe used to hold traditional ceremonies in the days when they were forbidden.
Talk about riveting detail. Joe identifies his mother’s rapist with the help of the man’s deformed and abandoned twin sister, a white woman who lives on the reservation! She had been crushed in the womb by her brother, and left in the hospital to die by their mother. The hospital’s night janitor, an Indian woman, nursed the child to life and adopted her, raising her—in stark contrast to her brother—in a loving family. (Her upbringing itself is a study in healing attention.) But Joe does not get the information he needs from her until—attention again—he proves by the way he listens to her that he is truly interested in what she has to say, and no longer repulsed by her superficial ugliness.
Because his mother’s rapist is not prosecuted but released, and considers his victim’s death unfinished business, Joe takes us on a perilous, but at times hilarious and tender, search for justice.
We are left contemplating the lifelong price of any major act of vengeance. A very somber, sometimes inevitable place to put our attention. The Round House helps us prepare for, revisit, or reconsider the dimensions of such a place—in the company of a 13-year-old character we grow to love.