I’m giving The Round House three stars because, although I enjoyed reading it, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the direction it took. To be fair, I liked many things about this story of the Coutts family, Native Americans living on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts is in that middle space between boyhood and adulthood and feels driven to find and punish the man who has attacked, raped and nearly killed his mother, Geraldine. After this plot is developed, however, the book takes several detours that do not always blend well with the storyline. The author begins by describing how Geraldine, Joe and his father, Bazil, cope in the aftermath of this violent crime. Amid their shock and outrage is their desperate wish to have things back to the way they were. When Geraldine retreats to her bedroom, they struggle to coax her back into their lives. The question of jurisdiction is equally important and Bazil, an Ojibwe judge, turns to his law files to find an answer. The exact location of the crime is critical, and because of overlapping land rights, Bazil understands that it’s unclear who will decide the case, the Ojibwe court system or the federal courts. These are the things that drew me in.
Instead of this focus, however, the plot seems to meander and visit storylines and characters that go nowhere or are bumbling and comic and I think this is strangely out of place. Bazil hauls files home from his office and he and Joe begin their research, but this effort seems to stall. Joe and his buddies visit the crime scene to locate evidence and are easily sidetracked. They make other efforts to gather evidence in an almost slapstick fashion. At other points, Joe’s narration seems to take on the style of a “Whodunit” crime novel.
But here are the main things I like about The Round House:
- Erdrich tells a moving story about family relationships. I like how all the characters recognize the importance of family and are accepting of friends of family and also across a wide range of families. I like how this bond spans all generations.
- I enjoyed learning about the Ojibwe traditions and beliefs.
- I think the “early” Joe character is well-defined. I especially like how Erdrich describes him as he wishes he could have gone back in time to prevent his mother from leaving on the day of the attack because this is such a human way to think. “I kept thinking how easily I could have gotten in the car with her that afternoon. How I could have offered to do that errand. I had entered that furrow of remorse – planted with the seeds of resentment – peculiar to young men.”
- I think Linda Wishkob is Erdrich’s best character. Her story and how it ties in with Joe’s family is the most interesting. Her reactions are unpredictable and that adds a lot of suspense. And although she is a strange and quirky sort, this character works.
- Bugger Pourier’s character is a nice “sleeper” addition. I like how he seems to be unimportant, but has important information.
- Bazil’s dinnertime stories, designed to draw Geraldine out of her depression, are touching. I like how hard Bazil tries to bring her back.
- I think Erdrich does a great job showing Joe’s feelings of dread and sickness near the end of the story, as he realizes what he has done.
- Joe’s friendship with Cappy. I like how Erdrich describes these friends. I especially like when Cappy trades sneakers with Joe, even though they wear different sizes. I think this is a realistic example of friendship between guys.
I’ve mentioned some of the things that bothered me; however I have a few more:
- Father Travis – I think this character is totally unrealistic and I don’t know how it adds to the story, except perhaps in the end, when he helps Joe understand how good can come from bad things. “The only thing that God can do, and does all of the time, is to draw good from any evil situation.” I’m also not sure I understand Travis’ recollection of the JFK assassination or its relevance. In addition, the chase scene between Cappy and Father Travis is a head-scratcher.
- Joe’s character takes on drastic changes and they seem unrealistic for a thirteen-year-old boy. How is it these boys are driving cars?
- Sonja’s character. I guess she’s supposed to be someone Joe feels conflicted love for, but I don’t understand how the reader can be sympathetic to her situation and forgive her actions. I think she has the potential to tie together the theme of violence against women. I wish Erdrich had done more of that.
- I think Joe’s grandfather, Mooshum, is a character with great potential and his sleep-talking fables are interesting to me. I wish they had been tied better to the main plot.
- Sonja’s birthday visit to Mooshum. No spoilers here, but beyond strange.
- Other references to Star Trek, Star Wars. This is lost on the readers who aren’t into these shows and movies.
- Mooshum’s birthday cake. I like the description of the party and how it shows the warmth of the celebration, but I don’t understand the incident. Is this supposed to be funny?
- A couple Kindle typos. Not a huge deal, but still…
I think a lot of this is a matter of opinion and reader taste, however, and I welcome other points of view. I’ve read reviews that complain about the lack of quotation marks. Didn’t bother me. I’ve read other reviews that compare The Round House to To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t think this is a fair comparison, despite the similar initial premise. I’d love to hear what you think. I’d also like to read something else by Erdrich and I’m looking for recommendations.
Thanks for visiting and for reading this post!