Award-winning author and owner of the Birchbark Books store in Minnesota, Louise Erdrich is of both European and Native American descent. Her Ojibwe heritage is an integral part of her latest novel, The Round House, which revolves around a crime committed against a woman of the Chippewa tribe.
Narrated by thirteen-year-old Joe, the story opens with a brutal attack on Joe’s mother Geraldine, a tribal enrollment specialist. Deeply traumatized and unable to cope, Geraldine withdraws to her bedroom, stymieing the police investigation. Joe’s father, a tribal lawyer, is convinced the violence was not random and enlists Joe’s help in reviewing pertinent legal cases which he believes will lead them to the perpetrator. With the help of friends and extended family, Joe uncovers evidence pointing to Linden Lark, a white man with a family history of checkered relations with the Chippewa. Unfortunately, while Geraldine knows the assault took place near the Round House, the reservation’s spiritual center, she cannot pinpoint the exact location and the area includes both tribal lands and state-owned property. With no clear jurisdiction, the case cannot be prosecuted and Lark is freed.
Erdrich braids together elements of native culture and mythology, Southern Gothic style, and the commonality of the male adolescent experience, all of which drive Joe’s decisions. The devastating impact, both past and present, of alcohol on Indian families is unmistakable. Relations between the tribal members and the white community are repeatedly shown as tenuous, the truce uneasy.
The Round House is a multi-faceted jewel. It is a coming-of-age story, a view of contemporary Native American reservation life, and a thriller turning on legal niceties while relentlessly moving to an inevitable conclusion. Erdrich’s afterword includes information about organizations working to correct the difficulties of prosecuting reservation crimes, especially sexual assault against Native women.