‘Thought provoking without being cliched’ – The Round House by Louise Erdrich

letrhIn an article for the Opinion pages of February’s New York Times Louise Erdrich, winner of the US National Book Award of 2012, writes that ‘more than 80 percent of sex crimes on (American Indian) reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.’ In her novel, The Round House, published in the UK in 2013 by Corsair, she tackles the subject directly, drawing on reports, cases and stories from real events.

The story is that of a Native American teenage boy whose mother is raped on sacred Indian ground in a round house. The boy’s father is the judge in the tribal court who is unable to convict his wife’s rapist because the crime took place on a state reservation, and can therefore go unpunished. Erdrich’s Native American judge is a man who chooses his words carefully, will not bend the law. He even writes like a judge, observes his son.

Of course, it’s an old story. White Man enslaves native population. Abuse follows domination. And so it goes on. Erdrich writes in her article that the rape of Native American women has become a day trip during hunting season. Rapists actually drive into Minnesota especially for the privilege.

What is interesting about this novel is that the issue it raises of crimes against a marginalised native community is rarely aired outside the US. Fortunately fiction is there to spread the word. It may be possible, as Laura Miller said in a Guardian review of the novel in May this year, to be horrified by the rape of a Native American woman by a Non-Native American man on an Indian reservation without ‘the dramatic assistance of a novel’ but the novel certainly brings it home.

Just this year a bill to enhance protections for American Indians was turned down by the House of Representatives. So it seems that having been turfed off tribal lands onto limited reservations Native Americans now have to put up with the fact that they can’t even find protection on them.

Written from the sole perspective of the son of the victim, the prose allows us to feel the utter despair of a child confronted by parental suffering. When he sees that his father the judge cannot stop it, Joe’s reaction is a familiar all-American one. But it doesn’t end there. The pain washes through the lives of the family members and their community, an endless wave that just keeps coming back. At times, this powerful message is buried beneath the colourful detail of the various characters that live on and around the reservation. But their presence lightens what could have been an even darker novel. And the fact that the reader sees it all through the innocent eyes of a teenage protagonist both enhances the realism while paradoxically lightening its effects.

Any Cop?: Thought provoking without being clichéd, and cited by Philip Roth as a novel well worth reading, Erdrich’s latest isn’t a million miles away from Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend – albeit refracted through a world not often seen in the pages of serious literature.

Lucille Turner


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