23 April 2013


Alan Cheuse says at the beginning of his review of The Round House, "I've devoted many hours in my life to reading, and among these hours many of them belong to the creations of novelist Louise Erdrich." And I concur. I haven't understood everything she's written, but I've never felt I wasted any of those hours.

I think I must have been in some kind of magical trance when I read Love Medicine thirty years ago. I had been working with Ojibwa people on a Wisconsin reservation, and it seemed that Erdrich was writing about people I'd met there. I tried to follow those people in her later novels, but sometimes I lost track of what they were telling me. (Maybe it's time to go back and figure things out.) Often, Erdrich told me things about my world while she was writing about "worlds" that were exotic and foreign to me.

Something I read about The Round House made me anxious to read it. I'm very glad I did.

Maybe the fact that most of the story was told by a 13-year-old boy helped. There are many parts of my brain that are still those of a 13-year-old. Other parts of the story are told by the man that young teenager became. And I could recognize that too. Most thirteen-year-olds struggle with the concept of fairness and earned fate. I still do, too. So too does the lawyer Erdrich's boy becomes.

And what is justice? Is fairness an essential part of justice? What if the social systems we create to provide justice fail? Where does justice come from then? Is revenge part of justice? Does evil produce good, as the local priest asserts in Erdrich's reservation parish? Is the good produced automatically or do people have to create it? What if the good results from more evil?

This story is a mystery. But it's not the police procedural that I'm fond of reading. This book is full of ideas, not just events and people. It demands thought and response, but, unlike some books in which complexity imitates depth, this story facilitates analysis and questions. Not answers, but questions. Erdrich is not the priest offering answers. She's the philosopher asking questions.

A woman is brutally raped as part of an attempt to cover up secrets of an extended family. Did it happen on reservation land (one justice system), in a state park (another justice system) or on US government land (a third justice system)? Returning from the hospital, the victim retreats to the silence of her bedroom shutting out her husband, her son, and the rest of the world. Where is justice going to come from? A 13-year-old boy? A tribal judge? The community? The FBI? A county sheriff?

The pursuit of justice we learn about is that of the boy. Along with his buddies, he tries to enjoy the summer and adventures and find out what happened and where. It's not a story of precocious detecting. It's a story of growing up and asking questions. It's a story that kept me entranced. It's a book that reminded me that there's more to a novel than telling a story and describing characters.

I'll repeat what I said to Ms Erdrich in 1985 when I got her to sign my copy of Love Medicine. "Thank you so much for writing about people who are very much like people I've met." And thank you for writing about ideas I haven't paid enough attention to.

Have you read The Round House? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

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