Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” won the 2012 National Book Award. The author is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians, and in this novel she gives the reader a vivid description of modern life on the fictional North Dakota reservation,Yoknapatawpha.
Joe is the narrator of this story.
Although Joe Coutts is in his 13th summer in 1988 when the story begins, he is an adult narrator who tells this story after the passage of many years. His father, Antone Bazil Coutts, is a tribal judge and his mother, Geraldine Coutts, a tribal enrollment specialist. By reservation standards, they are fairly affluent and Joe has grown up in a loving home surrounded by extended family.
Then his mother disappears for an entire afternoon, and Joe discovers she was abducted, raped, held hostage, covered in gasoline and escaped only because of her quick thinking. Everything changes. At first no one will tell Joe much about what happened. Joe finds out that his mother was attacked near the Round House. When he explores the area, he finds evidence that even the FBI had missed. Most of “The Round House” is dedicated to unraveling what happened.
After being attacked, Geraldine Coutts becomes a recluse in her bedroom, traumatized, barely eating and reluctant to reveal details. Joe makes it his mission to find out just what did happen and to make everything right again for his mother. He and his trusted friends Cappy, Zack and Angus are determined to find where they think his mother was attacked. Their search takes them to the Round House, a sacred place of worship for the Ojibwe.
Before 1978 when Indians were finally given the right to practice their own religion, the Indians pretended they used the Round House for social occasions, but when this story takes place in 1988, the tribe is once again using it the traditional ways.
Soon Joe and everyone know the name of the attacker. The man is arrested but then released. There is no clear jurisdiction. The U.S. legal system and the tribal justice system have long been in conflict, as tribal judges cannot prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on the reservation.
As his father explains, “The Round House is on the far edge of tribal trust, where our court has jurisdiction, though of course not over a white man. So federal law applies. Down to the lake, that is also tribal trust. But just to one side, a corner of that is state park, where state law applies.” Joe’s mother is not certain of where she was attacked, so the attacker is free, with no one able to bring him to trial. Joe’s mother lives in fear that he will attack her again.
Joe and his father study old court cases and reread the family’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law. The reader comes to understand how complicated this issue is. Joe is an Indian. He has grown up listening to his father and mother explaining the Indian heritage. This investigation is the inspiration for his own legal career as a public prosecutor. He knows and understands the tradition of Anishinaabe justice.
Louise Erdrich’s knowledge of Native American culture and her understanding of the complexities of legal jurisdiction create a suspenseful novel of family, history and culture. She also includes characters from her other books, who provide a sense of continuity, especially for those who have read any of her 13 earlier novels.