2011 »


The Round House

By Louise Erdrich

Publisher: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 

Haley Tanner writes:

Joe, the narrator of The Round House, and his friends love Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they all want to be like Worf.

Worf was combustible, noble, and handsome even with a turtle shell on his forehead. Next to Worf, we liked Data because he mocked white people by being curious about stupid things that the crew would do or say, and because when gorgeous Yar got drunk he declared himself fully functional and had sex with her. Wesley, the one you’d think we’d identify with, our age and a genius, and with a careless mom who let him get into trouble, did not interest us because he was a bumbling white town-baby and wore ludicrous sweaters.

Of course it isn’t all fun talk about Worf. The Round House is ambitious and serious and difficult, and Erdrich isn’t afraid to tackle big complex issues (Native American history, reservation politics, sexual violence) but the beating heart of this novel, without a doubt, is thirteen-year-old Joe.

Joe is in love with his Aunt Sonja―well, perhaps not so much Aunt Sonja per se, but certainly her bosoms. Like any good teenage boy Joe is voraciously hungry, he and his friends roam around the North Dakota Ojibwe Reservation where they live, scheming to find themselves jam sandwiches and Indian tacos and bachelor stew to devour. Erdrich has done a wonderful magical thing in The Round House, a delicious thing where a teenage boy is rendered with care and honesty; Joe is sweet and kind and horny as all get-out, and he’s a big naive wad of clay, trying to form himself into a man in a complicated, difficult world.

I’ll follow Joe anywhere, if only he’ll describe it to me as we go. Through Joe’s eyes, Father Travis, the new Catholic Priest on the reservation, is nearly a comic-book superhero, or villain: “His eyes had taken on that cyborg gleam. His cheekbones looked like they were going to break right through his skin. Not only did he have an amazing and terrible wound, but he had called us humiliating names without actually resorting to the usual swear words.”

Father Travis’ swear words are too good not to share here. He calls the boys, “...you little rat-pukes, you cat farts, you jerk-off freaks...” Erdrich has a great ear for swearing. She’s clearly a connoisseur. The grandmas and grandpas in this novel curse to make sailors blush, and it’s delightful.

On a normal afternoon, an afternoon spent pulling saplings that threaten the foundation of their house, Joe and his father find themselves home alone, wondering where Joe’s mother, Geraldine, has gone.

Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening. And so, you see, her absence stopped time.

The quietly terrifying absence of a mother, set against her son’s sweet appreciation of her presence, an empty kitchen, a house devoid of the regular smells of dinner on this stove―Erdrich knows how to dig a pit deep in your stomach.

Something terrible has happened to Geraldine. 

Joe’s father is a judge on the reservation, a person with law books and knowledge and resources, and still the book echoes with the futility of his pursuit of justice. The scene of the crime, the ceremonial round house of the title, sits on a patchwork puzzle of federal, state, and tribal land. The laws are different, the powers of the authorities are different, according to where the crime took place. Geraldine’s case is stuck in a void that is neither tribe nor country―as if she were attacked in a lawless no-man’s land.

Joe’s father tries every legal channel to right the wrong, while Joe sets out on his bike with his friends to launch an investigation and do the work the police have so miserably failed to do. Meanwhile, Joe’s mother, beautiful Geraldine, bears her devastation alone in her darkened bedroom, suffering, starving.

The plot sends us deep into a complicated awful mess of history and law and culture and poverty and violence, and Joe is in the midst of it, forced to leave childhood behind and become the kind of man who is able to shoulder great burdens for the good of his family. Erdrich never lets us forget that the violence done here is done against a woman, against her family, against her child, and that it does not end there. Joe has entered a different time, one where all his choices are tangled in the past and every decision comes with its own far-reaching terrors. His childhood, so lovingly portrayed in all its sweaty confused hungry tenderness, is over far too soon.  

Haley Tanner received her MFA in creative writing from The New School, where her novel Vaclav & Lena began as a short story. The publishing rights for her debut novel have been sold in thirteen countries, and film rights were optioned by the Mazur/Kaplan Company. She lives in Brooklyn.


Fiction Finalists That Year:

  • Junot Díaz for This Is How You Lose Her
  • Dave Eggers for A Hologram for the King
  • Ben Fountain for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  • Kevin Powers for The Yellow Birds

Fiction Judges That Year: Stacey D’Erasmo, Dinaw Mengestu, Lorrie Moore, Janet Peery

The Year in Literature:

  • The Pulitzer Prize was not awarded for fiction.
  • Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature. 

More Information: The Round House is Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel. She was a National Book Award Fiction Finalist in 2001 for The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and she was a Finalist in the Young People’s Literature category in 1999 for The Birchbark House.

Suggested Links: Louise Erdrich’s 2012 NBA Page

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