As I rounded the corner, I saw the twiggy treelets with their shriveled leaves, still laid out in a row on the concrete to die. I put down my books and gathered them up, one by one, and stashed them at the edge of the yard. It was in me at that moment to feel sorry for the little trees and to be aware also that I dreaded going into my house. I had never felt that before. Then I tried to open the door and found it was locked.
I was so surprised at first that I kicked at the door, thinking it was stuck. But the back door was really locked. And the front door locked automatically – Clemence had probably forgotten that. I got the key from its hiding place and went in slowly, quiet, not banging the door and slamming my books on the table as I ordinarily would have. On any other day, my mother wouldn’t have been home yet and I would have felt the sort of elation that a boy feels when he steps into his house knowing that for two hours it is all his. That he can make his own sandwich. That if there is TV reception, there might be afterschool reruns for him to watch. That there might be cookies or some other sweet around, hidden by his mother, but not hidden too well. That he can rifle through the books on his father and mother’s bedroom bookshelves for a book like Hawaii, by James Michener, where he might learn interesting but ultimately useless tips on Polynesian foreplay – but there, I have stopped. The back door had been locked for the first time I ever recall, and I’d had to fish the key from underneath the back steps where it had always hung on a nail, used only when the three of us returned from long trips.
Which is the sense I had now: that just going to school had been a long trip – and now I had returned. (pages 21-22)
A few years ago the daughter of a friend of mine was injured while running when a car crossed the center line and hit her. Her companion was killed. While I was following the trial, I had many conversations with my friend about the justice system in our country. Unfortunately, in this situation justice was not the main consideration. Economics (the cost of the trial as well as the cost of incarceration) and expediency played far greater roles in determining the outcome than justice for the death of one person and the injury of another. Justice is also at the forefront of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Round House.
The novel is narrated by Joe Coutts, a Ojibwe lawyer, relating the story of the summer he was thirteen, a young man coming of age on a North Dakota Indian Reservation. His father, Bazil, is a judge in the tribal courts while his mother, Geraldine, is a tribal clerk. Joe is the only child of the couple and the family has a close relationship with each other. One Spring weekend, Geraldine is brutally, almost fatally, attacked and sexually assaulted. The story opens with Joe and his father working in the yard that weekend when they notice that Geraldine has not returned from an errand to the office. Erdrich portrays the two’s growing sense of unease as they go looking for her, eventually find her, and take her to the hospital for treatment and from those moments on, things are definitely not the same – a differentiation Erdrich paints so well with passages like the one above when Joe returns home from his first day back at school after the attack.
The role of justice comes to bear because the assault took place on tribal land but the main suspect is white and because of the laws, there may be no justice at all. Erdrich recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the continuing problem of sexual assault on Indian Reservations and the statistics are staggering. She writes, “More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.” And, “…federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office.”
We know that things for Joe will be okay because the adult Joe is narrating the novel. You might think this takes away some of the suspense, instead, it allows Erdrich to concentrate on the nuances of justice. In the same way, the details of the assault are given to the reader is an almost gentle manner, pieced out with careful language so the assault, while the keystone of the plot, is in the background. Erdrich is much more interested in the aftermath, the way people change from Geraldine, to Basil, to Joe, to other characters. The crime has a ripple effect radiating outwards in a slow movement. This is the language of the novel that I appreciated the most – tiny details like the weeds we heard about in the beginning, left laying softly gathered on the side of the yard, withering away with the passage of summer or Joe’s mom climbing the stairs “ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.”
Through Erdrich’s words we can see the reservation, from the atmosphere to the round house (the spiritual center of the reservation and the place of the assault)
Clear spring shadows spread like water across the road. Down past the quiet slough, engines rumbled up to and away from the liquor store’s drive-up window. From yards invisible behind stands of willows and choke cherry, the short, vibrant cries of women rang, calling their children home. (pages 33-34)
The log hexagon was set up top of of a slight rise, and surrounded by rich grass, vivid green, long and thick. I dropped my bike. There was a moment of intense quiet. Then a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself. The sound filled me and flooded me. Finally, it ceased. I decided to go forward. As I climbed the hill, a breeze raised hair on the back of my neck. But when I reached the round house, the sun fell like a warm hand on my shoulders. (page 59)
And we can see Joe surrounded by more than the mere physicality of the reservation. He is surrounded by family, by people who care about him and his parents, by his friends, by his ancestors, by the history and lore of his people. All of which adds layer upon layer to the novel, nuance upon nuance so when Joe embarks upon his own personal journey of justice or retribution, he is not alone.
I loved the symmetry in this novel – how Erdrich would tell part of the tale and then echos of that telling would ripple in unexpected ways. The symmetry in the plot itself gives the novel a tight structure. The subtitles of the novel allow the discussions of science/mysticism, justice/vengeance, and native spirituality/organized religion to float through the narrative, never intruding yet permeating the words so the reader can follow.
I have never read a novel by Erdrich that was presented to the reader in such a subtle way. Ripples is a good word to describe this book and as you can tell, I liked it a lot. Erdrich has never been one of my favorite authors and I typically have a hard time reading her work (although I did like Shadow Tag) so it was a pleasant surprise to me that I enjoyed this book so much and it is now my favorite work by Erdrich.
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