The Round House

  • Louise Erdrich
  • Harper
  • 317 pp.

The 2012 National Book Award winner for fiction, this exquisitely rendered picture of life on an Indian reservation, a tribal judge revisits the past and a brutal crime against his mother.

The Round House won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction on November 14, 2012.

Reviewed by David L. Robbins

Rare is the novel that speaks to the heart. Bestseller lists dangle titles that appeal to the brain or, even more popularly, the gut. American readers like to puzzle over plots, wring hands over whodunit, twitch and flinch at surprises and violence. By contrast, and with her signature courage, American writer Louise Erdrich (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and The Plague of Doves), with her 12th novel, has given us a book that’s almost dauntingly emotional.

Her central character, 13-year-old Joe Coutts, is the son of a tribal judge in this revisit to Erdrich’s fictional Ojibwe Indian reservation, last seen in The Plague of Doves. Joe has a deeply wise and elegiac voice, and we learn quickly that he’s actually speaking to us from decades on, when he, too, has become a judge on the rez. Joe’s telling of his mother’s horrific rape and her subsequent withdrawal from the world, his father’s anger tempered by a sworn duty to dispense justice only out of law books, and Joe’s own struggles with a blithe childhood turned upside down pluck at the heartstrings like no book you’ll read this side of Steinbeck.

Erdrich’s eye for detail is exquisite — not just the minutiae of life on a North Dakota reservation but for every sensation of being alive. Good fictional characters exist in a world that draws them out and reveals what they’re capable of. Erdrich’s sense of integrating physical space with character may be unrivalled among contemporary writers. The Round House builds a palpable world, as authentic a vision as you will encounter on any page. Because her characters are so rooted there, the reader is, as well.

And her depictions of the internal world of Joe Coutts are every bit as deft. The boy grapples beautifully, painfully, on the cusp of maturity, dragged there by tragedy. Erdrich explores every nuance of Joe’s growing sagacity as the boy careens around the reservation on his bike with his young pals, interacts with a menagerie of relatives and extended family, and lays out a case for revenge.

But, as successful as Erdrich is with matters of the heart and the senses, The Round House fails to rise to the same levels in plot. She tries to thread an element of mystery into the novel, only to ineptly telegraph the rapist’s identity: He’s one of only two non-Indian males mentioned in the entire book, and his contempt for Indians is artless and blatant, without real motive. The story isn’t served by keeping him hidden for so long. The passages of discovery and evidence feel forced and the inevitable reveal lacks any satisfaction.

Erdrich makes several more awkward and puzzling missteps in the telling. She introduces a ghost early on, then ignores it until the last few pages. Apparently, the specter had business elsewhere. Similarly, the real narrator, the adult version of Joe, peeks only a few times from behind the veil, yet the book ends with us knowing nothing of the future ramifications from the tale to him, his family or buddies. The ghost and adult Joe are just two of many plot directions and characters introduced to varying depths, which the reader is asked to invest in that do not pay off. The old stage adage applies: If you put a revolver on the table in Act I, it better go off in Act II.

More baffling is Geraldine, Joe’s mother. After suffering the rape in the opening pages, she retreats to her room, turning her back on her family, the world, the book, and the reader — for the next 250 pages. She is a character in extended extremis for whom we have little opportunity for attachment, hard to appreciate beyond Joe’s complex feelings. When at last she comes back downstairs, we don’t share the joy because we don’t know her beyond her role as victim, object.

Because Erdrich wants the reader to know some Indian lore, she gives us the device of Mooshum, a centenarian-plus holdover from The Plague of Doves. To make sure we know just how ancient Mooshum is, we’re with him at a birthday party where he presses his weathered face into a woman’s bosom, then faints as if dead with a smile on his lips. Yes, a smile on his lips. Mooshum narrates his dreams in remarkable eloquence and detail so Joe can overhear. By the way, Joe learns a great deal of what he needs to proceed by eavesdropping, a writer’s amateurish gimmick.

Erdrich proves equally and oddly tone deaf in the way she illustrates the banalities of Joe’s male adolescence — comparing penises with his buddies, riding bikes past snapping dogs, drinking in the bushes, getting in trouble with the tough-talking priest, quoting lines out of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” Of course, Joe’s best friend who lifts weights gets the girl. Erdrich is so facile with the adults of the story, these clichés stand out even more.

And, so we can know lots of tribal law, Erdrich makes Joe’s father a reservation judge. She drops in long, clunky passages about an arcane piece of Indian law that’s profoundly unfair and makes prosecution of the rapist problematic. In one scene, Judge Coutts builds a convoluted sculpture out of silverware in the kitchen, a needless, even patronizing, visual aid to help Joe and the reader grasp the complexities he’s facing in pursuing the villain by law books alone.

Here, sadly, is where The Round House falls down the most: Erdrich is transparent and unabashed in her desire to advocate. The first sentence of her Afterword says:  “This book is set in 1988, but the tragic tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations still exists.”

Ultimately, this makes The Round House a plea for Indian justice at the expense of good storytelling. Erdrich’s earlier works, not so burdened by politics, are truly masterful, particularly The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. In the end, the power of this novel feels stunted; it suffers from an imposed agenda that wrests the story from the characters and the land Erdrich so lovingly and achingly describes, and puts it on a predetermined path. This opens it up to formula and devices in order to get where the author — not the characters — wants the story to go.

The Round House will endure because it is so remarkably heartfelt; Erdrich truly cares about the point she’s making. But Erdrich’s incredible works soar only when her characters roam, rise and fall by dint of their own vices, strengths and will, and are not tethered to a podium and a point.

David L. Robbins, a freelance writer since 1981, is the author of 10 novels. He founded the James River Writers, a nonprofit group in Richmond, Va., and is the co-founder of The Podium Foundation (, which works with educators and students to support the teaching and practice of writing. His latest novel, The Devil’s Waters, is available from Thomas & Mercer.

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