“Just yesterday a white guy asked me if I was a real Indian. No, I said, Columbus made a mistake. The Indians are in India.” Presented as humor during a community festival, the deep irony remains striking throughout Louise Erdrich’s award-winning, bestselling books that explore Native American identity and experiences, caught between tribal traditions and a labyrinthine non-Native system that continues to elide Native citizens of civil rights.
Justice is at the heart of Erdrich’s latest, The Round House, this year’s National Book Award winner. The second title in a planned trilogy that began with The Plague of Doves, (2009 Pulitzer finalist), House undoubtedly succeeds as a stand-alone volume. That said, characters in House and Plague overlap and intertwine, and reading the titles sequentially amplifies the experience of both. Small phrases in House such as “A local historian had dredged that up and proved it,” would not have nearly the significance (“rough justice,” an unfinished love story) without the back-story revealed in Plague. [If you choose the audible route, although Gary Farmer reads evenly and admirably, to have Peter Francis James continue his narrating from Plague would surely have resulted in an even more resonating recitation.]
In House, Erdrich narrows her focus on one of Plague‘s four narrators, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, a man of the law whose wife has been gravely violated. When Geraldine Coutts’ errand to retrieve a file from her office one Sunday has her still missing by the afternoon, the good judge and his son decide to go looking for her: “Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” observes 13-year-old Joe, also called “Oops” as he was a “surprise” in the late-in-life marriage of his parents. “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.”
After borrowing a relative’s car to search around town, father and son finally find Geraldine in their own driveway, her hands still clutching the steering wheel. Her withdrawal into a silent, isolated world of her own will shatter the small family. Joe’s determination to somehow heal his mother – fueled and abetted by his (teenage-boy, testosterone-driven) best friends – recognizes no limits. Twins separated at birth, a drowned doll full of wet bills, a priest who gives out Dune in addition to the good book, a Romeo-and-Juliet-like separation, all come together as young Joe works to restore his shattered family.
Like its teenage narrator, Round House moves urgently, rarely pausing for breath. Once begun, the story barrels toward the conclusion, shocking and reassuring both. Grab hold: don’t miss this phenomenal ride.