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Saturday 24 May 2014

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is a writer of Native American descent, specifically Chippewa being a branch of the Anishinaabe tribe, and her novel The Round House centres its focus on this tribe. It is a complex, richly detailed novel which deserves multiple readings in order to fully appreciate the many nuances Erdrich deals with in the course of the story.

The story is told from the perspective of Joe, a thirteen year old boy living on the reservation with his father, a tribal judge, and his mother a tribal enrolment specialist. At the beginning of the novel Joe is innocent, a boy prising tree shoots out of his garden. Then his mother is violently raped and Joe’s secure world is spun into disarray. Through this relatively simple, if distubing premise, Erdrich weaves a complex tale of a boy coming of age along with the realities of tribal existence and the difficulties in living as a different culture within the American state system. Almost right at the beginning, when Joe is waiting in the hospital to find out what has happened to his mother, the presence and impact of racial prejudice appears:

“I sat down in a chair of orange moulded plastic. A skinny pregnant woman had walked past the open car doos, eyeing my mother, taking it all in before she registered herself. She slumped down next to a quiet old woman, across from me, and picked up an old People magazine.
Don’t you Indians have your own hospital over there? Aren’t you building a new one?
The emergency room’s under construction, I told her.
Still, she said.
Still what? I made my voice grating and sarcastic. I was never like so many Indian boys, who’d look down quiet in their anger and say nothing. My mother had taught me different.”

Bearing in mind that this is directed towards a boy just turned thirteen who is waiting to find out what terrible thing has happened to his mother, this kind of casual racism really packs an emotional punch. I’d like to think it wasn’t believable, but it is.

Not only was Joe’s mother raped, she was also taken to The Round House, a building with great meaning in the tribe’s culture and history, where she was covered with gasoline and her attacker tried to set her on fire. Joe, understandably, struggles with this terrible knowledge and through the introduction of The Round House we also learn something more of Chippewa culture and history:

“During the old days when Indians could not practice their religion – well, actually not such old days: pre-1978 – the round house had been used for ceremonies. People pretended it was a social dance hall or brought their Bibles for gatherings. In those days the headlights of the priest’s car coming down the long road glared in the southern window. By the time the priest or the BIA superintendent arrived, the water drums and eagle feathers and the medicine bags and the birchbank scrolls and sacred pipes were in a couple of motorboats halfway across the lake.”

But Joe’s aged grandfather, Mooshum, reveals through his dream talking the origin of the round house and how it is important in Chippewa history:

“Your people were brought together by us buffalo once. You knew how to hunt and use us. Your clans gave you laws. You had many rules by which you operated. Rules that respected us and forced you to work together. Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart...”

In this way, the violation of Joe’s mother in the round house reflects the violation of Chippewa culture as they try to exist within the rules laid down for them by the US state. In the course of his trying to understand, to seek justice, for what has happened to his mother, Joe also begins to learn more about his aged father. At first he finds the work his father does sadly disappointing, finding his father judging on cases about stolen washers and the allocation of tribal land. Joe finds himself losing respect for his father, as the gulf between what he imagined and the reality of what his father does grows. This is worsened by the difficulty in solving the crime against his mother, and the complexity of bringing a trial even if the attacker was known depending on whether the acts took place on tribal land or on state land or private land, or whether the attacker was Indian or white. Added to this is Joe’s frustration at his mother’s continued silence and unwillingness to fit back into the mould of the secure, loving mother he remembered.

There is a lot of ground covered in this book. Joe explores the idea of evil, the concept of different religions and the reality and difficulty of being a child caught between cultures. If I had one beef with this book it would be in its portrayal of rape, which leads itself into a wider question I’ve been considering around the depiction of rape in literature in general. In The Round House that Joe’s mother had been raped was not in question. It was a violent assault perpetrated by a ‘stranger’ (stranger in the sense that it was an outsider, not a person close to the victim, rather than an unknown entity) which feeds into the general trope that rape involves violence and a stranger, when in fact the majority of rapes are committed by people close to and known by the victim. There were no nuances, either, around the violence of the attack, and this frustrates me because it perpetuates the image of a particular form of rape, being the less prevalent form, in which the roles of the parties are clear cut. That being said, Erdrich turns this around quite masterfully in the character of Sonja, a woman who lives with Joe’s uncle Whitey. Sonja is a beautiful woman, a former ‘dancer’ (read: stripper) with beautiful breasts that Joe lusts after. Sonja treats Joe like a son at a time when his mother is struggling. She cares for him, she helps him hide some money he finds in the lake, money which is connected to the crime against his mother. She also takes some of the money, secretly, for herself. Whilst staying with Whitey and Sonja, Joe discovers the violence at the root of their relationship and he struggles with his desire to protect her, which in itself is a desire for possession, and his disgust some of her behaviour, taking some of the money he found for example, which he sees as a ‘betrayal’.

But it is when Sonja delivers a ‘dance’ for aged Mooshum that Joe discovers the rot at the core of his relationship with Sonja. Knowing what she was about to do, he refuses to leave. He even threatens to expose her involvement in hiding the money, in order to secure his place at the dance. Only afterwards does he realise what he has done, how he had used threats to secure his sexual gratification, and how this demonstrated, only too clearly, that the line separating him from the man that attacked his mother was paper-thin:

“Yeah no. You’re crying aren’t you? Cry all you want Joe. Lots of men cry after they do something nasty to a woman. I don’t have a daughter anymore. I thought of you like my son. But you just turned into another piece a shit guy. Another gimme-gimme asshole, Joe. That’s all you are.”

Similarly in his relationship with his mother, he tries to force her to fit back in to the comfortable, secure woman he’d come to take for granted. Similarly, his mother calls him out after Joe tries to force her, through emotional blackmail, to tell him who her attacker was:

“Now you listen to me Joe. You will not badger me or harass me. You will leave me to think the way I want to think, here. I have to heal any way I can. You will stop asking questions and you will not give me any worry. You will not go after him. You will not terrify me Joe. I’ve had enough fear for my whole life. You will not add to my fear. You will not add to my sorrows. You will not be part of this.”

In this way Erdrich shows how the desire to control, especially the desire to control women and require them to conform to a male view of who they are, can appear in many forms. The rapist is one of them, but as Joe shows not the only one.

Of course his mother’s warning doesn’t stop Joe from going on to try to exact his revenge, and pay a terrible consequence.

There’s an awful lot to this book, too much to cover here. It has depth and complexity, wrapped up in an otherwise relatively simple story. The character of Joe is conflicted and weak, struggling his way through a terrible event that didn’t happen to him but that he somehow had to try to take control of. At the same time, he is a boy learning to face an adult reality. It is a coming of age story, a story of friendship and grief. It reveals a human face to the Chippewa reality, for those of us whose only experience of ‘Indians’ are those dreadful Western movies in which they’re depicted as savage and violent and deserving of being wiped forcibly from their own land. It is only one, moderately sized book, but it goes a long way towards wiping that vision from history. Which can only be a good thing, and is one of the ways in which literature can be a force for understanding and humanising. Something Erdrich achieves masterfully here.

The Round House receives a respectful 9 out of 10 Biis. 

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