The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Publication Year: 2012
Genre: General Fiction, Crime
Awards: National Book Award for Fiction (2012), ALA Alex Award (2013) + several other smaller awards
WHY?: I'd started hearing a lot about this book the last couple of years and it and the author sounded interesting. I was supposed to read it last year as part of Book Riot's Read Harder challenge but didn't get to it because I'm crap at challenges. It was pretty high up on my TBR.
THIS BOOK. I don't even know how to begin talking about it. It's one of those books. It took me a long time to read but not because it wasn't engaging or it was too hard; every time I sat down with it, I got completely sucked in as if I was living in young Joe's head. And that was the thing. I felt like I wanted to have the brain space and time to really soak it all in every time I sat down to read it.
SYNOPSIS: The Round House is a coming of age tale that takes place in the mid-1980s on a North Dakota Indian Reservation. Joe is 12 years old and is the only child of loving, stable parents who are financially pretty well off by reservation standards and certainly compared to his group of three best friends. He and his friends are tight and spend their time scrounging food, watching and debating Star Trek, getting interested in girls and experimenting with being bad. Then a violent act kicks the foundation out from under Joe's family and his life is turned upside down. He wants to fix it and his friends want to help him but what can a band of 12 year old Indian boys really do to get justice? The thing this book reminded me the most strongly of is one of my favorite movies; Stand by Me (1986). I've not read the Stephen King novella that the movie is based so I have no idea if there are similarities with it but the connection with the movie was strong in my head and it gave me a lot of the same feels.
The first strength of this book is the first person narration by Joe. He is narrating as an adult looking back on a momentous summer which allows for some hindsight commentary. It also though gives the reader a view not only of the crime and its aftermath but also the everyday life of the reservation through the eyes of a 12 year old. A 12 year old who is smart, and who has grown up in a household where his Tribal judge father has worked for justice in small ways. A man who tries to wrestle justice in a country where the white law of the land is built on precedents that de-value native people and culture:
[in regards to a 1823 Supreme Court decision written by John Marshall] "Even to this day, his words are used to continue the dispossession of our lands. But what particularly galls the intelligent person now is that the language he used survives in the law, that we were savages living off the forest, and to leave our land to us was to leave it useless wilderness, that our character and religion is of so inferior a stamp that the superior genius of Europe must certainly claim ascendancy and on and on."The second strength of this book is how funny it can be. For having at its core something so deeply violent, the book and Joe frequently charmed me which helped it not be something I appreciated-but-dreaded reading. I honestly really enjoyed the reading experience. Erdrich's wit is dry and subtle and woven in seamlessly with the more difficult themes.
"My father could out-weather anybody. Like people anywhere, there were times when it was the only topic where people here felt comfortably expressive, and my father could go on earnestly, seemingly forever. When the current weather was exhausted, there was all the weather that had occurred in recorded history, weather lived through or witnessed by a relative, or even heard about on the news. Catastrophic weather of all types. And when that was done with, there was all the weather that might possibly occur in the future. I’d even heard him speculate about weather in the afterlife."
"I left. I’d learned from my mistake with Father Travis that unusual politeness from a boy my age is an instant suspicion-raiser."The third strength of this book was that it is really a coming of age tale. An adult man looking back at the key moments that made him become the man he is. These moments are much more devastating than what most people face and his actions are equally as tough. There is one 10-15 page section about 65-70% through the book that just completely blew me away. His father lays out why, when his cases are so often petty and seemingly inconsequential, he continues to do his job to the best of his ability. The first quote above is from this section and the whole interaction is powerful. We know from snippets dropped that adult Joe has followed in his father's footsteps and become a tribal judge. He also learns about relations between men and women and how they can go wrong, not only from what has happened to his mother but through his infatuation with his "aunt" Sonja who used to be stripper.
"She wouldn’t know that I put that souvenir tassel where I’ll come across it by chance, on purpose. Because every time I look at it, I am reminded of the way I treated Sonja and about the way she treated me, or about how I threatened her and all that came of it, how I was just another guy. How that killed me once I really thought about it. A gimme-gimme asshole. Maybe I was. Still, after I thought about it for a long time—in fact, all my life—I wanted to be something better."Basically this is one of those books that manages to be about thought-provoking and difficult subject matter while also being a simple story about characters I cared about. It doesn't over complicate or pontificate. The language is beautiful but simple, real and compelling. A joy to read and get sucked into. In short, it is my favorite kind of "literary" fiction - earthy, realistic and grounded; never pompous or self-important. It definitely made me want to read everything Louise Erdrich has written.
FINAL VERDICT: A coming of age tale beautifully told with characters it is impossible not to care deeply about. A really engrossing read. 5 out of 5 Stars.
Other Opinions are Available*: Taking on a World of Words | Lit Lovers (round up summary of many professional reviews)
* I especially struggled this time around getting across my full thoughts and feelings on this book so please check out the linked reviews if my ramblings have left you feeling confused!