Saturday, 16 January 2016

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

A few months ago, Ann Morgan (from A Year of Reading the World) and I asked Native American book blogger, Debbie Reese, what adult book by an indigenous writer she would recommend. Her answer, unhesitating, was The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

Set in 1988, The Round House is the story of the unravelling consequences of the rape of an Anishinaabe woman in North Dakota, as seen through the eyes of her 13 year old son.

The novel opens on a moment of normality – a boy and his father working quietly together to pull up saplings that threaten the foundations of their house. When Joe’s mother does not return in time for dinner, they drive round looking for her, thinking perhaps that her car has broken down. Then they find her sitting in the car, “her hands were clenched on the wheel and she was staring blindly ahead.”

At first, Joe’s mother, desperate to protect another young woman and her child, will not speak about what happened. But bit by bit, the story reveals itself. She was raped in a place where the boundaries of different lands meet, making it almost impossible to determine who is responsible for prosecuting the case.

The novel was inspired in part by the Amnesty report from 2009 – the Maze of Injustice – which revealed that at least one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the US. 86% of those rapes are committed by non-Native men, often with additional violence. Prosecution is further complicated by such a tangle of jurisdictions – federal, state and tribal –that frequently no action is taken at all.

Seeing the case through Joe’s eyes allows us to understand, at the most intimate level, how rape effects the family and the whole community. But at the same time, Erdrich finds ways of showing us a bigger picture – one that tells of the rape of Indian lands by the white settlers.

Joe’s father is a judge in the native courts. When Joe starts to realise how limited his father’s jurisdiction is, he shows him how the legal precedents he and his fellow Native judges set are built above a rotten foundation of case law, going back to the early 1800s, that stripped Indian tribes of their right of self determination.

“Everything we do, no matter how trivial must be crafted keenly,” he tells Joe. “We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty.”

Threaded through the novel, too, are the stories told by Mooshum, Joe’s Métis grandfather, who is old enough to remember a time when the Anishinaabe people starved because of the loss of traditional hunting grounds, as the buffalo were slaughtered and they were driven onto ever-shrinking reservation lands.

Mooshum also tells him about the wiindigoo – a person possessed by a spirit that would make them "become an animal and see fellow humans as prey meat". "The thing to do," his grandfather explains, "was you had to kill that person right away."

Louise Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Anishinaabe (also called Chippewa in the US and Ojibwe in Canada), so her portrait of life on the reservation is rooted in reality. These are not the romanticised Indians of the Great American West, but flesh and blood people struggling to survive.

The book is full of wonderful, unexpected, characters, like Grandma Thunder, one of those "Indian grandmas where the church doesn't take, and who are let loose in their old age to shock the young". Joe and his friends help out at ceremonies, like the sweat lodge, that barely ten years earlier, were still illegal to practice. The book explores the tensions that still exist between the Catholic Church and traditional religion.

Above all, however, this is a story of the end of childhood, the loss of innocence, and the intense friendships of early adolescence. Joe and his best mate, Cappy, hover on the edge of boyhood – in one breath imagining themselves as characters in Star Trek, the next falling in love with his aunt’s “full, delicate, resolute and round” breasts. But the events of that summer will force them to grow up in the most painful way possible. Joe, faced with the probability that his mother’s attacker will never face prosecution, will have to make choices that no one, let alone a boy of his age, should ever have to make.

You'll Enjoy This If You Loved: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, Peace Like a River by Lief Enger

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that centre around violence against women

Perfect Accompaniment: Frybread with meat and beans, topped with grated cheese.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction by Indigenous Writers

Available from Amazon

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