If a Monster Hid Among You…

A Review of The Round House by Louise Erdrich

 The Saratoga Springs YMCA is a hub of activity I visit regularly.  In the  large, main room, there are about 10 televisions facing the various workout machines, tuned to the wide variety of shows that may (or may not) interest the patrons, including sports, police dramas, cooking shows, movies, and talking head news and opinion networks.  On a particular Saturday earlier this year, I wasn’t planning to watch any of them as I walked on the treadmill.  I was going to read The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

I signed up for 45 minutes on one of the 2 dozen treadmills, set it to a fast walk, climbed on, and checked my beginning heart-rate.  86.  “Seems a little low,” I thought, “but within the normal range.”  It was a calm, weekend afternoon.  The stressful, boom-and-bust work of the Cultural Resource Management archaeologist was a good 18 hours behind me.  I began reading the first chapter of Erdrich’s novel set in and around a fictional Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in 1988.  After a few minutes I monitored my heart-rate again.  101.  Now it seemed high.  I had only been on for a little while. 

I put the book down and walked-in-place while watching basketball for a while.  After a few minutes, I checked my heart-rate.  95.  “What?” I thought.  “It went down.  That doesn’t happen.  It goes up and then levels off.”  I started reading again.  After a few minutes, I checked my heart-rate one more time, baffled by the previous result.  Now it was back up, to 103.  Then it occurred to me:  the book was making my heart-rate rise quickly.  Closing it made my heart-rate drop to a level affected only by the exercise.  The reading was making me tense. I would say unusually tense.

In the first chapter of The Round House, the protagonist, a thirteen year old boy named Joe Coutts (actually Antone Bazil Coutts, Jr.) and his father, the reservation court judge Antone Bazil Coutts, Sr. find Joe’s battered but surviving mother, Geraldine, after a brutal assault. They rush her to the hospital, the perpetrator unknown.  Beyond the sexual assault, he tried to kill her.  Joe’s mother was unable to reveal him, her memory and sense of self lost in trauma for much of the story (although you would be right if you guess that this will be a truly great story if Geraldine eventually recovers her core, grit, and love).

The story brings up the issue of sexual assaults on reservations by off-reservation perpetrators.  Louise Erdrich also wrote about this in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, February 26, 2013.  Among the statistics she quotes, Erdrich reported that 80% of sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by non-natives.  Native authorities have limited power to prosecute these crimes, and the reservation boundaries often act as barriers to justice by restricting jurisdiction.  Erdrich wrote to prompt the U. S. House of Representatives to aid the prosecution of these crimes, at a time when their leadership resisted re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act unless it exempted non-native accused rapists from prosecution in tribal courts.    

This book brings to our attention the complex of constrained legal authorities that may affect the investigation and prosecution of crimes perpetrated against Indians who live reservations. In the process we learn of the fragile agency of Native American judges in seeking precedents that gradually increase native legal authority in native matters, while carefully avoiding precedents that take authority away.  In the novel, investigating the crime against Geraldine is nuanced and limited by the question of whether it occurred on or off the reservation.  Joe’s father, with the help of an off-reservation police ally, quietly investigates the crime against his wife.  Joe investigates too:  at his father’s side, in his father’s library, and surreptitiously out and about, here and there.  Keeping the adults selectively out of his hot pursuit, he haunts secret places, makes unreported visits, finds overlooked clues, and learns from conversations he otherwise keeps to himself.

It seems impossible to review this book without this context of the real-life issues.  But in addition this novel is, significantly, a gripping mystery.  It is a monumental coming-of-age story set in an almost larger-than-life adventure.  I won’t give anything away by telling you that Joe eventually tracks down his mother’s attacker (Once you start The Round House, why would you finish it if he didn’t?).  Joe Coutts (affectionately known as Oops for a reason you will learn in the book) is a character who is as memorable to me as Huckleberry Finn, “Scout” Finch, or Holden Caulfield.  Moreover, Erdrich, in writing novels about fictional Ojibwe and white lives in North Dakota, has created an essential history entangling this tale of Joe Coutts. The Round House is a chapter of the larger story.

As The Round House unfolds, discoveries are made and connections emerge.  Joe becomes increasingly aware that the perpetrator is still around.  The perpetrator is moving between the reservation and other North Dakota communities, carrying his evil with him and covering up his crimes and secrets.  Remarkably, another crime is involved with the attack on Geraldine, a crime linked so inextricably that the danger hasn’t been resolved by either Geraldine’s escape from her attacker or her inability to reveal his identity.  The boundaries of the reservation and the limited legal systems affecting its residents provide cover for her attacker’s deadly intentions.

If a monster hid among you, what would you do?  Embedded in this story is another, a story from deep in tribal oral history, a memory of an era when Joe’s Ojibwe ancestors lived on the plains during a time of great hunger.  It is a story of community law from the pre-reservation days.  It is a story of the youth of Nanapush, a recurring Erdrich character from the beginning of her fictional history.  In this starving time, the small community feared the presence of a windigo, a neighbor or family member secretly turned cannibal whose identity is unknown, but who must be found out and dealt with before killing (or further killing) takes place. Nanapush’s tale, repeated across the generations, is one of ancient law in which the customary application of justice may be problematic but provides a precedent nonetheless.  

This parallel story of the monster hiding among people deftly foreshadows the danger and challenge of Joe’s quest, and its resolution, as he hones in on the conscienceless killer who seems beyond the reach of reservation police and court, safely immune to the application of justice when jurisdiction remains indefinable.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich was published in hardcover by HarperCollins and in paperback by Harper Perennial in 2012.