In a Trance of Dread

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David Ash/Corbis Outline
Louise Erdrich, circa 2001
The loss of their land was lodged inside of them forever.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

Dense with meaning, both symbolic and literal, the first scene of Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, the National Book Award–winning The Round House, involves an arduous attempt at the pruning of small trees that have “attacked my parents’ house at the foundation.” Only seedlings with very few leaves, the tiny predators have nonetheless managed to squeeze through cracks in shingles and into a wall: “I thought it was a wonder the treelets had persisted through a North Dakota winter.”

The foundations of the Coutts household are under assault from without; father and son will unite to protect it, but belatedly, and incompletely. The narrator Joe, thirteen years old at this time, in 1988, continues to “pry at the hidden rootlings” after his father, Bazil Coutts, a judge in his Native American tribe, has given up the difficult task; so too will Joe, despite his youth, persevere in a desperate quest for justice after a brutal assault against his mother, even as his father finds himself powerless and humiliated.

The setting of The Round House is a Native American reservation in North Dakota, near the fictitious small town of Hoopdance, in which “no one didn’t have a clan.” It is one of those lovingly annotated communities familiar to readers of Louise Erdrich’s fiction in which Native American and mixed-blood inhabitants “knew [their] place in the world and [their] relationship to all other beings” and “nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.” Less idiosyncratically populated than Erdrich’s more characteristic novels Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), and The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House is a chronicle of individuals whose identities are inexorably bound up with their families, clans, tribal and interlocking histories—“an impenetrable undergrowth of names and liaisons.”

The novel is a mixture of lyrical narration, regional history, and digressive tall tales told by tribal elders that allow the author to establish the contemporary in the ancestral/mythic past. It resembles previous works of multigenerational fiction by Erdrich in which a crime, usually committed by a nonnative against Native Americans, is the catalyst of a sequence of events involving decades and generations, but its tone is gravely analytical. It is a work of confessional summation, a looking-back over years, not unlike a legal brief.

Instead of Erdrich’s multiple, colorfully unreliable narrators, The Round House is narrated by a single, reliable individual, Joe Coutts, speaking of a crucial period in his life and in the lives of his parents. Joe addresses the reader from an indeterminate present tense in which we know of his adult self only that he is married and has become a lawyer like his father, with a law degree from the University of Minnesota. We understand that, whatever horror has been perpetrated at the start of The Round House …

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