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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.
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.