The Round House by Louise Erdrich

the round house picThe Round House
by
Louise Erdrich

Rating:  ***

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!

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2 thoughts on “The Round House by Louise Erdrich

  1. Hi. I realize this is an older post, but I just read The Round House, so I thought I’d mention. I saw you listed Erdrich’s other novels when you wrote about reading this one, but I’m wondering if you’ve read any. The reason I ask is because I think some of your concerns would be addressed if you had. Erdrich has always written series of interconnected novels and stories. Characters reoccur from one to the next, and often to get a fully developed picture, you have to read others. I’m a teacher, and this can be very frustrating because the novels generally can be read in isolation, but the experience is somewhat diminished. For example, Father Travis, who might seem like a throwaway, is one of a series of priests and Catholic religious figures who appear in many of Erdrich’s which allows her to explore the relationship between the Ojibwe and the church in a way that transcends each individual novel. Mooshum is an important character in Plague of Doves, and in some ways Round House is building on his characterization from that novel, rather than building him from scratch. In fact, many of the characters from Plague of Doves reappear in The Round House. Part of what Erdrich seems to be suggesting with her work is that what she wants to say about the tremendously complex intersection of history and peoples centered in and around the Ojibwe reservation cannot fit in one novel. So Mooshum is actually developing themes and ideas from the earlier novel. Also, his stories connect this novel with Erdrich’s much earlier novels. I think you also read St. Marie from Love Medicine. Love Medicine is the first novel in which Nanapush – the guy from Mooshum’s story – appears, and he is a crucial character in many of her earlier works. So, for a reader who reads many of Erdrich’s works looking for the “big picture” those stories in part serve to link this novel (and Plague of Doves, in retrospect) to those earlier works. This is sort of fun – you think, hey, they mentioned Father Damien!- but it goes beyond that because all her works have many incidents and themes which overlap.

    Of course, as a reader, you have every right to expect a novel to be satisfying in isolation, and I’m not suggesting that you should like it better now, or anything, but there is something uniquely satisfying, for me anyway, about the spider web nature of Erdrich’s works. I actually have a hard time judging the novels individually because I can’t remove each from the tapestry of her other novels.

    One thing I would say about Mooshum’s stories that I thought did work for me just within the world of this novel, which might make it work a bit better for you is the connection between the Windigo and Linden. Bazil makes that explicit near the end when he tries to rationalize what he knows Joe did by calling Linden a Windigo, and by comparing Joe’s actions to traditional justice. Also, the story of Nanapush protecting his mom mirrors Joe protecting his mom. The irony is Mooshum’s story warns against violence, and Joe opts for violence. But if the story was a warning Joe didn’t heed, well there was certainly a cost for that. So, for what it’s worth, there is that.

    Also, I think the cake incident is meant to be funny. One of the things Erdrich likes to play with is different kinds of humor (check out The Antelope Wife if you are at all interested in what it’s like when an evil talking dog starts telling jokes) and I’ve actually seen her previously include rather broad, slapstick humor in a novel which is mostly overwhelmingly tragic.

    I agree with a lot of what you said, by the way. I loved Linda, and I thought the Bugger twist was great. Sorry – I didn’t mean to turn my post into a term paper!

    1. Hello Jessica and thanks for leaving such thoughtful comments about The Round House. It is the only book I’ve read by Erdrich and I did not know that her characters appear in her other books. That makes me feel better about it – perhaps I didn’t appreciate some of the characters because I didn’t know them well enough. Happy reading and thanks again for stopping by!

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