Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review: The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich 
Harper Collins
2012 
321 pages 
National Book Award Winner 2012 

The best books, in my opinion, are those that grab your heart from the very beginning and linger in your mind long after you finish the last page. Sometimes they enlighten you, open your horizons, make you care a bit more deeply, teach you something new in the process.

I had a sense that The Round House was going to be such a book from its description:
One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.
If that doesn't intrigue you, the first lines surely will:
"Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves, Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. They had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry them loose." (pg.1) 
Foreshadowing and symbolism much? Yes and yes, but it all works beautifully in the hands of Louise Erdrich in The Round House, which has just been named the National Book Award winner for 2012.

Your heart immediately breaks for Joe, the narrator of the story and who is only 13 when his mother is attacked and raped on an Indian reservation in 1988. Although we learn in the early pages of the story that Joe is narrating as an adult, we easily forget this as we get absorbed into the story. Erdrich makes him such a tender character. Indeed, that's one of the most incredible strengths of The Round House. 

It's one thing for a writer to make a reader feel sympathetic for a character but it is quite another to sustain that emotion at such a high intensity for 300 pages, as Erdrich expertly does. I can't overemphasize how tremendously Erdrich does this; the weight and emotion of this heinous crime and its aftermath is so heavy on the page, it is absolutely palpable. To me, this was perhaps the best quality of the book.

Early on in the plot, we realize (as does Joe) that justice will not be swift - if it is even served at all. That's when Joe, along with his three best friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack, decides to take matters into his own hands. They get in over their head, none moreso than Joe, whose father is a judge. The consequences become life-changing.

No modern day writer captures the modern Native American Indian experience as well as Erdrich, and in each one of her books, the reader learns something new about the history and culture of this people. In The Round House, it is the light that she shines on the
"tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations." A 2009 Amnesty International report found that "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted." (Afterward, pg. 319) 
I truly had no idea.

I'm an admirer of Louise Erdrich's writing (see my reviews of The Painted Drum, The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, and Shadow Tag) and was thrilled to have been offered a copy of The Round House for review via the publisher from TLC Book Tours in exchange only for my honest review. The Round House recently won the National Book Award, an honor for which it is well deserved.


4 stars out of 5.

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2 comments:

Amy said...

I was lucky enough to get a signed first edition of this at a local bookstore (I live in Erdrich's community). I'm also a big fan of her work and really looking forward to this one, once I'm caught up on library books/book club books.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I haven't read any of Erdich's books yet but it looks like I'm missing out on some fantastic writing!

Thanks for the great review for the tour. I'm featuring it on TLC's Facebook page today