Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

There comes a traumatic time in a child's life when they realize their parents, whom they've idealized (even idolized), are fallible and flawed, just like everyone else. It's difficult to come to that realization, which sometimes creates ripples that play out for their entire lives.

For 13-year-old Joe Coutts, who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in 1988, that moment comes shortly after his mother, Geraldine, is sexually assaulted one Sunday. She is both physically and emotionally traumatized, and nothing that Joe or his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, can do can help heal Geraldine or assuage the anguish she feels. And although she still fears her attacker, she is reluctant to share the details of her assault and what led to it, and would rather that Bazil and Joe drop the subject.

As Bazil tries to care for Geraldine and keep as much normalcy at home as possible, he tries to determine who is responsible for his wife's assault, keeping within the confines of tribal law. Joe begins learning more about the justice system and possible perpetrators, and wants his father to keep him fully involved in the investigation, which leads him to pursue his own suspicions.

With all that is going on, Joe finds himself on the cusp of adulthood quicker than he planned. He enlists his best friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to help him with investigating some of the people who might have been responsible for his mother's attack, a task they take on in earnest when they're not drinking, smoking, talking about girls, and acting like typical teenagers. And when the person responsible for assaulting his mother winds up walking free, Joe faces a difficult dilemma about how to take control of the situation and restore normalcy to his family's life, no matter what the cost.

The Round House, which recently won the National Book Award, is a powerful story about the bonds of family, the loyalty of friendship, the loss of innocence when you encounter violence for the first time, traditions, and the pain and excitement of growing up. Louise Erdrich created beautifully complex and vivid characters, and unfurled a multi-layered plot that kept me reading even as I had suspicions about how it would progress. As she often does in her books, Erdrich also included Native American elements into the story, through the character of Joe's grandfather, Mooshum, and the traditions of the sweat lodge and the round house.

This is a beautifully written, compelling, and thought provoking book, one in which I felt deeply invested. I did think the story moved a little slower than I wanted, and as much as I enjoyed Mooshum's stories, sometimes they ran a bit long, and then they were more of a distraction. But on the whole, this is a book that packs a powerful punch, one that will keep you thinking about it long after you're finished.

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