May 10, 2013

Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Published: 2012, HarperCollins
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Library ebook
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Now that I knew fear, I also knew it was not permanent. As powerful as it was, its grip on me would loosen. It would pass. 

It's taken me months to formulate my thoughts enough to write a review. Months. Not because I don't have anything to say, but because, despite the critical acclaim, The Round House and I really did not go well together. While I have no problem with the subject matter or plot overall, but it is primarily in its execution that I found The Round House to be sorely lacking.

During the spring of 1988, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts' world gets turned upside-down when his mother Geraldine is violently raped. Joe's father, a tribal judge, and many family members try to get Joe's mother to recount what has happened to her so that they can seek justice. But Joe's mother will not recount anything, instead staying in her bed and slipping deeper and deeper into depression. 

All anyone knows for sure is that the crime took place near the tribal round house, which presents a difficulty in and of itself. The land around the round house is under three different jurisdictions, so without proof of exactly where the crime was committed it will be difficult to enact any justice for Joe's mother. While the adults try to figure out how to help Geraldine, Joe also searches for answers with his friends. For Joe this is a summer of discovery as much as a summer of tragedy, as he comes to realize what matters most in his life and the measures he's willing to take for those he loves.

All of the issues I have with this book stem from one central complaint: I feel as though Erdrich is trying to cover far too many aspects in this one small book. At its most basic level, The Round House can be read as Joe's coming of age story. It is this summer where he loses his innocence: his naive beliefs that his parents have a perfect relationship, that the governing systems will always promote justice, and, perhaps most painfully, that all the adults in his life have their fair share of flaws and cannot solve all problems. The Joe at the end of the novel is hardened and a little less hopeful, yet because the story is recounted by an older Joe, readers at least know that he survives through all of these trials. 

Intermixed with Joe's coming of age tale is a mystery-style story about his mother's rape and questions surrounding the identity of the perpetrator. As if the rape and the effect it has on Geraldine and her family isn't enough of a tragedy, the crime's location near the round house adds another layer of complication. The land surrounding the round house is broken apart into three different jurisdictions: tribal, state, and federal. Without knowing the exact spot the rape occurred, one law enforcement force cannot take over the case.

Erdrich's book can also be seen as a commentary on Objibwe culture and the place that it has within (relatively) modern-day America. It is this aspect that I found most interesting. Not only has Erdrich clearly done her research, but she is herself of Objibwe descent. It does not seem like a stretch of the imagination to assume the authenticity of this culture's portrayal in Erdrich's story. Through the novel the readers can begin to understand a little about the rituals and stories that make up the Objibwe culture, as well as the clashes that this Native American culture (and, I'm sure, many others) faces from white cultures and their religions. Although I felt that Erdrich's keen attention to detail works to the benefit of The Round House overall, I also found it to hinder my reading experience. Erdrich tends to overwhelm certain parts of the narrative with long explanations and stories that better help readers understand the Objibwe culture. While it's never a bad thing to better understand a culture, Erdrich's narrative choices made this feel too much like information-dumping for me to quite appreciate these bits of knowledge.

My issue about Erdich's choice to portray Objibwe culture through lots of information-dumping relates to my overall experience of reading this book. I like the premise of the novel, but I found the book to be a little long, Erdrich's desire to focus on all the aspects possible more than a little frustrating. And the information on the political issues inherent in any Native American culture was interesting but at times felt too in-depth. The book is less than 400 pages, yet it dragged on and on. Readers are given new subplots to focus on, introduced to yet more new characters. Although Erdrich does try to tie some plot points together, I ultimately felt as though the scope of this novel was far too wide.

For a first-person narrated story, I found Joe to be a very distant protagonist. He was sympathetic enough who would not sympathize with a young boy in his position? — but in comparison with the rest of his family, Joe comes off as a little bland. Joe may be the narrator, but it is the other characters who make the story come alive, from the hilarious Mooshum, to Linda, who struggles to find her place as a white woman adopted by the tribe, to ex-military priest Father Travis, to poor Cappy, who is simply looking for love.

I'll admit that my knowledge of American literature focused on Native American tribes is pretty limited. I am sure that there are other stories out there with similar messages that have the potential to really resonate with me, but The Round House was not it. I had much better luck reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or even Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree (and, yes, I am well-aware of the issues the latter one has). Both of them are coming-of-age stories that focus on the trials of young Native American boys trying to find their place in the world.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Hmm...I'm so glad you reviewed this one, Amanda! And you've done a great job of explaining your issues with it, all of which are things that would likely bug me as well. I hate when an author starts info-dumping facts about whatever society they're working with because they're cool, not because they really need to be there. I studied the Ojibwa in college (archaeology/anthropology major), so when I first saw this book it really piqued my interest. I think I'd feel similarly to you, however, so I'll likely skip it.

    1. The premise does sound interesting, but it just fell so flat for me, unfortunately. You may fare better though, especially if you already have an interest in/knowledge of the Objibwe culture! But it's definitely not a book I'll be recommending myself.

  2. Ms. Erdrich, the author, does a wonderful job of taking really harsh subject matter and rolling it into a story that leaves the reader hopeful. I would highly recommend this book, even to squeamish readers.


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