Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Reserve family's stories become whole culture's

  • Print

The Round House

By Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins, 317 pages, $30

Since her award-winning first novel, Love Medicine (1984), immediately established her bona fides, Minnesota-based Louise Erdrich has given us another 24 books. The Round House, her 13th novel and the first since 2010's Shadow Tag (her most autobiographical fiction to date) offers ample proof of her undiminished powers and shows that she remains a bold and intrepid writer, unafraid to experiment and to test the boundaries of what kinds of truths fiction might be shaped to tell.

Like many Erdrich novels, it's set on reserves in the Dakotas. Erdrich sets herself the challenge of telling a dark story retrospectively through the eyes of Joe, a boy of 13 whose world collapses when his mother is brutally attacked and raped by a man whom his father, a judge on the reserve, identifies but cannot prosecute because of the deadening tangle of federal and state laws that regulate and restrict every facet of their lives.


The novel traces every aspect of the reserve's borders against white culture, but, more tellingly, also reveals the intense and pervasive infringements upon the family structures on reserve -- most powerfully incarnated in the central crime.

The white perpetrator embodies many of the novel's themes: his twin sister, abandoned and then adopted at birth on the reserve, plays a crucial role in identifying her brother, while his violent psyche re-enacts a singular instance of the agonized history of the reserve's relations with white culture. (Indeed, in an afterword Erdrich points to a 2009 report by Amnesty International that one in three aboriginal women will be raped in her lifetime and 86 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults upon aboriginal women are perpetrated by non-native men.)

Joe's immediate family -- uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins -- forms an intimate skein, an overlapping and intricate system of custom and care, ritual and story through which Joe's passionate prosecution of his mother's attacker cuts a sharp and skewed path towards its inevitable conclusion.

Storytelling skills

Erdrich's storytelling skills render the adult's memories of his young teen self entirely and utterly believable; that she plausibly crosses gender as well as artfully telescoping time makes this novel a compelling contemporary exemplar of what the Germans dubbed the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel.

As is customary in Erdich's fiction, The Round House brings alive the daily realities of contemporary aboriginal culture, while showing how the traces of its long history in the Americas are everywhere apparent. In this novel this vein is most richly revealed through the stories that Mooshum, Joe's grandfather, tells in his sleep; these tales of Nanapush, of family intrigue and adventure, come to seem as natural and believable as the literal ghosts that appear regularly both to haunt Joe and to act as silent but vivid commentators on the novel's main action.

The painful rhythms of Joe's recollections gradually gather strength until they seem to hurtle towards the twinned sequence of events that will mark his forced coming of age: first, his encounter with his mother's attacker, and then his fated cross-country drive with three friends as one of them seeks an impossible reconciliation with his white girlfriend.

In the novel's closing scene, Joe sees that his mother and father, like himself, now an adult narrator looking back for the last time, have suddenly grown old; this is a sadly fitting recognition for the boy suddenly and prematurely become a man, and destined to narrate this story.

Through Erdrich's luminous gifts, Joe's and his family's stories become a whole culture's; and reading The Round House means this story becomes unavoidably plain for all.

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is vice-president, research and international, at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Selinger addresses stadium lawsuit

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A pelican comes in for a landing Wednesday afternoon on the Red River at Lockport, Manitoba - Standup photo- June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Korea Veterans Association stained glass window at Deer Lodge Centre. Dedication with Minister of Veterans Affairs Dr. Rey Pagtakhan. March 12, 2003.

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google