The Round House
Constable & Robinson, hardback,
352 pages, £17.99, ISBN: 9781472108166
The peculiar geography evoked in The Round House is one that Louise Erdrich has visited before. A fastidious chronicler of Native American lives, in her previous novels Erdrich has described the reservations of North Dakota, and the communities inhabiting them, to great acclaim. This, her thirteenth, sees her conjure in the eponymous Round House the purest metaphor yet for the conflicts that drive fault lines through reservation land. Part of a complex spatial arrangement that encompasses more than just land, the Round House is a sacred Native American site, now mostly out of use and surrounded by land of usurped or disputed ownership: some belonging to the reservation, some sold off to, and claimed by, the Federal Government, leaving land ‘now so fractioned nobody can get much use out of it’. In the opening pages, thirteen year-old Joe Coutts discovers that his mother Geraldine has been violently attacked somewhere here, on this land which is also an ancient complex of tribal codes. Beset by confusions of territory and ownership – for only Native Americans are subject to the particularities of tribal law on reservation ground, and the mainstream police force avoids intervention in such particularities wherever possible – Joe and his father, a lawyer, must discover precisely where the attack took place (and whether the perpetrator is a Native American) in order to understand whether the machinery of formal justice might be set in motion for Geraldine.
Joe’s investigation – the inspiration for his own subsequent legal career, he confides, retelling the tale as an adult – is intricate and absorbing. This is an unconventional whodunit, for both father and son have a suspect in mind almost immediately. Conversely, the thrill lies in Erdrich’s careful unfurling of reservation politics as she maps the intersections between the shrinking of the reservations by the US government and the contemporary challenges of Native-American self-governance. It is a complex puzzle and Joe is impatient, thirsty for fast justice. Exasperated, he mocks his father’s painstaking work seeking out precedents in his own work that might help them to locate the crime both spatially and in tribal law, challenging him to admit that it is ‘beyond your jurisdiction’. Joe might not know it yet, but his words ring full with the community’s biggest fear: that the land will refuse their claim for traditional tribal justice. His father continues patiently through his files, finally finding a case where he had managed to claim ‘limited jurisdiction over a non-Indian-owned business’ located in reservation territory. These case files, meticulously studied, reveal to the reader the realities of the legal complexity, that ‘being an Indian is in some ways a tangle of red tape’. Joe opposes this tortive bureaucracy: he and his friends, boys pedalling fast on bikes and lurking in the undergrowth, are seeking out a more immediate kind of justice. The imperatives of the land, its peculiar magnetism, cannot be ignored.
Erdrich’s novel is remarkable first for its exceptionally deft storytelling: the exposition of the spatial and political conflicts realised in narration, conversation and case study – the realities of which confound even the most experienced characters in the novel – is clear-eyed and careful. But the impact of Erdrich’s writing is most profound when the tensions are embodied emotionally: when history is mapped onto space and psyche simultaneously. One night on the threshold of the cemetery Joe stops and lets himself feel the full thrill of his anxieties:
And so to be afraid of entering the cemetery by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb. The old cemetery was filled with its complications.
To enter the cemetery, to move amongst the complex historical lives of his ancestors, is to absorb the darkness of the past, to question the truth of his own identity, of his community’s authority. Joe walks into the cemetery; his father throws himself into his case files. They confront their reality in their own ways. In doing so they must abandon certain freedoms: in their home, doors that were perpetually open are now locked, and a new guard dog is bought to protect the perimeter. Joe realises that the freedom of roaming the reservation land must give way to the constraints of justice, with its locked doors, and this realisation brings him to adulthood.
Another character moves between the realm of the tribal community and the Non-Native world, and Joe seeks out her tale. Linda Wishkob – a white woman who was adopted by a Native American after her birth mother rejected her – is a full-bodied realisation of the ‘gut kick’ of genealogy, a quiet, lonesome woman existing on the periphery of the community. Erdrich briefly allows Linda to interrupt Joes’ first-person narration with the quiet authority of her own disarming storytelling. Afterwards she hovers in the background throughout, a reminder of the challenges of co-existence between Native and non-Native communities, her feelings towards her birth mother and her adopted family bringing new textures of conflict to the novel. She ushers in a new voice, thick with shades of regret. Indeed, Linda’s oddness, her quietness, seems to conceal a profound form of self-knowledge that Erdrich might have unpicked more thoroughly.
Nevertheless, the author does make some space for other characterisation. Mooshum, a tribal elder who revels in storytelling and striptease, is evoked with humorous physicality: the misshaping of his mouth as he removes his teeth, the powerful, comical heaviness of his body. Joe and his friends recoil in embarrassment from a grandmother who tells deliciously filthy stories: ‘Shut up, said Cappy. I can’t take hearing about your grandma doing it with a three-balled man’. The boys blush and holler. And Joe’s friendships are beautifully rendered.
In his older, storytelling guise Joe becomes an interlocutor who reconciles federal and tribal law, like his father before him. He pauses to linger on the dreams and tales of Mooshum; his pleasure in doing so emphasises the imaginative, compassionate depth of the Native American narrative culture. But his voice is imbued with a different kind of worldliness, one which comes from frequent crossings of his own personal territorial borders. He admits to two versions of himself, evident in his speaking voice as it forgets the Chippewa tongue
I left my ds behind when I went to college and took up the th…I wrote an awful poem once about all the ds that got left behind and floated around on the reservations and a friend read it. She thought there was something in the idea…
This anecdote is rich. It speaks first to the complex idea of identity in constant evolution, reshaping its limits but with an eye always turned towards the past. The sounds are ‘left behind’, but continue to exist, to sound out – and Joe reclaims them when he later returns to the reservation to live. But this recollection also recognises the voice as our most important tool – a voice that can identify itself, can tell stories. The ‘poem’ is the means through which the problem can be expressed. The same is true for this novel: when the legal and tribal narratives bend and fracture, compete and cut through each other, Joe’s story remains to hold the pieces together. Erdrich’s fine novel asserts the power in the act of storytelling, and is deeply moving. One wishes, if anything, that there might be more voices with stories to tell, that the cacophonic depth of the history of this community might be realised here. But this is Joe’s story, and that Erdrich delineates the limits of her protagonist’s own knowledge is a testament to the powerful characterisation. In the frequent mess and occasional harmony of a whole, complicated culture, Joe makes himself – and his stories – heard.