Round House (Erdrich)

The Round House
Louise Erdrich, 2012
HarperCollins
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 978
0062065254


Summary
Winner, 2012 National Book Award

One Sunday in the summer of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to reveal the details of what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them to the Round House, a sacred place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—June 7, 1954
Where—Little Falls, Minnesota, USA
Education—A.B., Dartmouth College; M.A.,
   Johns Hopkins
Awards—National Book Award; National Book Critics Circle
   Award; Nelson Algren Prize for Short Fiction
Currently—lives in Minnesota


Karen Louise Erdrich is an author of novels, poetry, and children's books with some Native American ancestry. She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance. In 2009, her novel The Plague of Doves was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. She is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The eldest of seven children, Erdrich was born to Ralph and Rita Erdrich in Little Falls, Minnesota. Her father was German-American while her mother was French and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). Her grandfather Patrick Gourneau served as a tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

She attended Dartmouth College in 1972-1976, earning an AB degree and meeting her future husband, the Modoc anthropologist and writer Michael Dorris. He was then director of the college’s Native American Studies program. Subsequently, Erdrich worked in a wide variety of jobs, including as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher at prisons, and construction flag signaler. She also became an editor for The Circle, a newspaper produced by and for the urban Native population in Boston. Erdrich graduated with a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979.

In the period 1978-1982, Erdrich published many poems and short stories. It was also during this period that she began collaborating with Dorris, initially working through the mail while Dorris was working in New Zealand. The relationship progressed, and the two were married in 1981. During this time, Erdrich assembled the material that would eventually be published as the poetry collection Jacklight.

In 1982, Erdrich's story "The World’s Greatest Fisherman" was awarded the $5,000 Nelson Algren Prize for short fiction. This convinced Erdrich and Dorris, who continued to work collaboratively, that they should embark on writing a novel.

Early Novels
In 1984, Erdrich published the novel Love Medicine. Made up of a disjointed but interconnected series of short narratives, each told from the perspective of a different character, and moving backwards and forward in time through every decade between the 1930s and the present day, the book told the stories of several families living near each other on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.

The innovative techniques of the book, which owed a great deal to the works of William Faulkner but have little precedent in Native-authored fiction, allowed Erdrich to build up a picture of a community in a way entirely suited to the reservation setting. She received immediate praise from author/critics such as N. Scott Momaday and Gerald Vizenor, and the book was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. It has never subsequently been out of print.

Erdrich followed Love Medicine with The Beet Queen, which continued her technique of using multiple narrators, but surprised many critics by expanding the fictional reservation universe of Love Medicine to include the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota. Native characters are very much kept in the background in this novel, while Erdrich concentrates on the German-American community. The action of the novel takes place mostly before World War II.

The Beet Queen was subject to a bitter attack from Native novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who accused Erdrich of being more concerned with postmodern technique than with the political struggles of Native peoples.

Erdrich and Dorris’ collaborations continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, always occupying the same fictional universe.

Tracks goes back to the early 20th century at the formation of the reservation and introduces the trickster figure of Nanapush, who owes a clear debt to Nanabozho. Erdrich’s novel most rooted in Anishinaabe culture (at least until Four Souls), it shows early clashes between traditional ways and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Bingo Palace updates but does not resolve various conflicts from Love Medicine: set in the 1980s, it shows the effects both good and bad of a casino and a factory being set up among the reservation community. Finally, Tales of Burning Love finishes the story of Sister Leopolda, a recurring character from all the former books, and introduces a new set of white people to the reservation universe.

Erdrich and Dorris wrote The Crown of Columbus, the only novel to which both writers put their names, and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, credited to Dorris. Both of these were set away from the Argus reservation.

Domestic Life
The couple had six children, three of them adopted. Dorris had adopted the children when he was single. After their marriage, Erdrich also adopted them, and the couple had three daughters together. Some of the children had difficulties.

In 1989 Dorris published The Broken Cord, a book about fetal alcohol syndrome, from which their adopted son Reynold Abel suffered. Dorris had found it was a widespread and until then relatively undiagnosed problem among Native American children because of mothers' alcohol issues. In 1991, Reynold Abel was hit by a car and killed at age 23.

In 1995 their son Jeffrey Sava accused them both of child abuse. Dorris and Erdrich unsuccessfully pursued an extortion case against him. Shortly afterward, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings. Erdrich claimed that Dorris had been depressed since the second year of their marriage.

On April 11, 1997, Michael Dorris committed suicide in Concord, New Hampshire.

Later Writings
Erdrich’s first novel after divorce, The Antelope Wife, was the first to be set outside the continuity of the previous books. She has subsequently returned to the reservation and nearby towns, and has produced five novels since 1998 dealing with events in that fictional area. Among these are The Master Butchers Singing Club, a macabre mystery which again draws on Erdrich's Native American and German-American heritage, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Both have geographic and character connections with The Beet Queen.

Together with several of her previous works, these have drawn comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels. The successive novels have created multiple narratives in the same fictional area and combined the tapestry of local history with current themes and modern consciousness.

In The Plague of Doves, Erdrich has continued the multi-ethnic dimension of her writing, weaving together the layered relationships among residents of farms, towns and reservations; their shared histories, secrets, relationships and antipathies; and the complexities for later generations of re-imagining their ancestors' overlapping pasts. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Erdrich's 2010 book, Shadow Tag, was a departure for her, as she focuses on a failed marriage.

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Ojibwa and Chippewa). Erdrich also has German, French and American ancestry. One sister, Heidi, publishes under the name Heid E. Erdrich; she is a poet who also resides in Minnesota. Another sister, Lise Erdrich, has written children's books and collections of fiction and essays. For the past few years, the three Erdrich sisters have hosted annual writers workshops on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

The award-winning photographer Ronald W. Erdrich is one of their cousins. He lives and works in Abilene, Texas. He was named "Star Photojournalist of the Year" in 2004 by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors association. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
With The Round House, her 14th novel, Louise Erdrich takes us back to the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.... This time she focuses on one nuclear family—the 13-year-old Joe Coutts; his mother, Geraldine; and his father, Judge Antone Coutts—that is shattered and remade after a terrible event.... Although its plot suffers from a schematic quality that inhibits Ms. Erdrich’s talent for elliptical storytelling, the novel showcases her extraordinary ability to delineate the ties of love, resentment, need, duty and sympathy that bind families together.... The event that changes the Coutts family’s lives is the rape and savage beating of Geraldine, which occurs in 1988 near the round house.... While evidence piles up pointing to the identity of the man who raped Geraldine, his arrest and conviction are complicated by jurisdictional rules having to do with whether the crime took place on state or tribal land, and “who had committed it—an Indian or non-Indian.” It is Joe’s story that lies at the heart of this book, and Joe’s story that makes this flawed but powerful novel worth reading.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


The Round House
represents something of a departure for Erdrich, whose past novels of Indian life have usually relied on a rotating cast of narrators, a kind of storytelling chorus. Here, though, Joe is the only narrator, and the urgency of his account gives the action the momentum and tight focus of a crime novel, which, in a sense, it is. But for Erdrich, The Round House is also a return to form. Joe's voice...recalls that of Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, one of the narrators of Erdrich's masterly novel The Plague of Doves. That's appropriate because Joe is the judge's son.... If The Round House is less sweeping and symphonic than The Plague of Doves, it is just as riveting. By boring deeply into one person's darkest episode, Erdrich hits the bedrock truth about a whole community.
Maria Russo - New York Times Book Review


Erdrich never shields the reader or Joe from the truth.... She writes simply, without flourish.
Philadelphia Inquirer


An artfully balanced mystery, thriller and coming-of-age story.... This novel will have you reading at warp speed to see what happens next.
Minneapolis Star Tribune


Book by book, over the past three decades, Louise Erdrich has built one of the most moving and engrossing collections of novels in American literature.... Joe is an incredibly endearing narrator, full of urgency and radiant candor...and the story he tells transforms a sad, isolated crime into a revelation about how maturity alters our relationship with our parents, delivering us into new kinds of love and pain.
Michael Dirda - Washington Post


The story draws the reader unstoppably page by page.
Seattle Times


The Round House is filled with stunning language that recalls shades of Faulkner, Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison. Deeply moving, this novel ranks among Erdrich’s best work, and it is impossible to forget.
USA Today


A sweeping, suspenseful outing from this prizewinning, generation-spanning chronicler of her Native American people, the Ojibwe of the northern plains.... A sumptuous tale.
Elle Magazine


A gripping mystery with a moral twist: Revenge might be the harshest punishment, but only for the victims.
Entertainment Weekly


Erdrich threads a gripping mystery and multilayered portrait of a community through a deeply affecting coming-of-age novel.
Karen Holt -  O, the Oprah Magazine


Erdrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, sets her newest (after Shadow Tag) in 1988 in an Ojibwe community in North Dakota; the story pulses with urgency as she probes the moral and legal ramifications of a terrible act of violence. When tribal enrollment expert Geraldine Coutts is viciously attacked, her ordeal is made even more devastating by the legal ambiguities surrounding the location and perpetrator of the assault—did the attack occur on tribal, federal, or state land? Is the aggressor white or Indian? As Geraldine becomes enveloped by depression, her husband, Bazil (the tribal judge), and their 13-year-old son, Joe, try desperately to identify her assailant and bring him to justice. The teen quickly grows frustrated with the slow pace of the law, so Joe and three friends take matters into their own hands. But revenge exacts a tragic price, and Joe is jarringly ushered into an adult realm of anguished guilt and ineffable sadness. Through Joe’s narration, which is by turns raunchy and emotionally immediate, Erdrich perceptively chronicles the attack’s disastrous effect on the family’s domestic life, their community, and Joe’s own premature introduction to a violent world.
Publishers Weekly


Set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in 1988, Erdrich's 14th novel focuses on 13-year-old Joseph. After his mother is brutally raped yet refuses to speak about the experience, Joe must not only cope with her slow physical and mental recovery but also confront his own feelings of anger and helplessness. Questions of jurisdiction and treaty law complicate matters. Doubting that justice will be served, Joe enlists his friends to help investigate the crime. Verdict:Erdrich skillfully makes Joe's coming-of-age both universal and specific. Like many a teenage boy, he sneaks beer with his buddies, watches Star Trek: The Next Generation, and obsesses about sex. But the story is also ripe with detail about reservation life, and with her rich cast of characters, from Joe's alcoholic and sometimes violent uncle Whitey and his former-stripper girlfriend Sonja, to the ex-marine priest Father Travis and the gleefully lewd Grandma Thunder, Erdrich provides flavor, humor, and depth. Joe's relationship with his father, Bazil, a judge, has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, as Bazil explains to his son why he continues to seek justice despite roadblocks to prosecuting non-Indians. Recommended. —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Library Journal


(Starred review.) A stunning and devastating tale of hate crimes and vengeance.... Erdrich covers a vast spectrum of history, cruel loss, and bracing realizations. A preeminent tale in an essential American saga.
Booklist


Erdrich returns to the North Dakota Ojibwe community she introduced in The Plague of Doves (2008)—akin but at a remove from the community she created in the continuum.... The novel combines a coming-of-age story (think Stand By Me) with a crime and vengeance story while exploring Erdrich's trademark themes.... This second novel in a planned trilogy lacks the breadth and richness of Erdrich at her best, but middling Erdrich is still pretty great.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The Round House opens with the sentence: "Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation." How do these words relate to the complete story that unfolds?

2. Though he is older as he narrates the story, Joe is just thirteen when the novel opens. What is the significance of his age? How does that impact the events that occur and his actions and reactions?

3. Describe Joe's family, and his relationship with his parents. In talking about his parents, Joe says, "I saw myself as different, though I didn't know how yet." Why, at thirteen, did he think this? Do you think the grown-up Joe narrating the story still believes this?

4. Joe's whole family is rocked by the attack on his mother. How does it affect the relationship between his mother and father, and between him and his mother? Does it alter Joe's view of them? Can trauma force a child to grow up "overnight"? What impact does it have on Joe? How does it transform his family?

5. "My mother's job was to know everybody's secrets," Joe tells us. How does this knowledge empower Geraldine and how does it make her life more difficult?

6. Joe is inseparable from his three friends, especially his best friend, Cappy. Talk about their bond. How does their closeness influence unfolding events?

7. What is the significance of The Round House? What is the importance of the Obijwe legends that are scattered through the novel? How do they reflect and deepen the main story? What can we learn from the old ways of people like the Ojibwe? Is Joe proud of his heritage? Discuss the connection between the natural and animal world and the tribe's spirituality.

8. After the attack, Joe's mother, Geraldine, isn't sure exactly where it happened, whether it was technically on Reservation land or not. How does the legal relationship between the U.S. and the Ojibwe complicate the investigation? Why can't she lie to make it easier?

9. Secondary characters, including Mooshum, Linda Wishkob, Sonja, Whitey, Clemence, and Father Travis, play indelible roles in the central story. Talk about their interactions with Joe and his friends and parents. What do their stories tell about the wider world of the reservation and about relations between white and Native Americans?

10. Towards the novel's climax, Father Travis tells Joe, "in order to purify yourself, you have to understand yourself. Everything out in the world is also in you. Good, bad, evil, perfection, death, everything. So we study our souls." Would you say this is a good characterization of humanity? How is each of these things visible in Joe's personality?

11. He also tells Joe about the different types of evil—the material version, which we cannot control, and the moral one, which is harm deliberately caused by humans. How does this knowledge influence Joe?

12. When Joe makes his fateful decision concerning his mother's attacker, he says it is about justice, not vengeance. What do you think? How does that decision change him? Why doesn't he share the information he has with the people who love him?

13. What do you think about the status of Native Americans? Should we have reservations in modern America? How does the Reservation preserve their heritage and culture and how does it set them apart from their fellow Americans?

14. Could the American West have been settled without the conflicts between white Europeans and native peoples? Do you think we, as Americans, have changed significantly today?

15. We hear a great deal about reparations and atonement for slavery. What about America's history with the Native American population—should these same issues be raised? Racism is often seen in terms of black and white. How does this view impact prejudices against others who aren't white, including people like the Ojibwe? Do you think there is prejudice against Native Americans? How is this portrayed in the book? Contrast these with examples of kindness and fairness.

16. "My father remembered that of course an Ojibwe person's clan meant everything at one time, and no one didn't have a clan; thus, you know your place in the world and your relationship to all other beings." How has modernity—and westward expansion—transformed this? Has our rush to the future, and our restless need to move, impacted us as a society and as individuals?

17. Race, politics, injustice, religion, superstition, magic, and the boundary between childhood and adulthood are explored in The Round House. Choose a theme or two and trace how it is demonstrated in a character's life throughout the novel.

18. The only thing that God can do, and does all the time, is to draw good from any evil situation," the priest advised Joe. What good does Joe—and also his family—draw from the events of the summer? What life lessons did Joe learn that summer of 1988?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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