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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, whatever violation of the soul of the Native American community, this Native American witness has survived intact.

“Where is your mother?”—this abrupt question, put to Joe by his father on a Sunday afternoon, is the first indication that something is wrong in the Coutts household. Joe’s mother, Geraldine, who works in the Bureau of Indian Affairs on their reservation as a tribal enrollment specialist, has been at the office just a little too long: “Her absence stopped time.” Immediately Joe becomes anxious:

I was aware that what was happening was in the nature of something unusual. A missing mother. A thing that didn’t happen to the son of a judge, even one who lived on a reservation.

Added to the sense of urgency is the knowledge that Geraldine Coutts’s job is “to know everybody’s secrets.” Not unlike the novelist-proprietor of a fictional landscape who is privy to interrelations and facts about individuals about which the individuals themselves might be ignorant:

Children of incest, molestation, rape, adultery, fornication beyond reservation boundaries or within, children of white farmers, bankers, nuns, BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] superintendents, police, and priests. My mother kept her files locked in a safe. No one else knew the combination of the safe….

Father and son drive hurriedly to the reservation to look for Geraldine, who unaccountably speeds past them in her car, on her way home. When they discover her in front of the garage of their house, still in her car, it’s immediately obvious that something has happened to her: “I could see it…in the set of her body—something fixed, rigid, wrong.” Erdrich skillfully dramatizes the slow-dawning horror of the thirteen-year-old Joe as he’s forced to confront the fact that his beloved, beautiful, so-capable mother has been unspeakably violated, and that their lives as a family—a relatively privileged Native American family—have been irrevocably changed.

It is not giving away too much of The Round House to note that Geraldine has been the victim of a particularly brutal rape and beating by a man in the community whom she knows, and could identify to authorities, if she were not terrified of the consequences for herself and for her family. (Yet more horribly, the rapist sprinkled gasoline on her with the intention of setting her afire, except the desperate woman managed to escape from him. The smell of gasoline on his mother’s clothing seems mysterious to Joe but not to the reader, who understands immediately its meaning.) The situation is exacerbated by the traumatized victim’s inability to precisely recall where the assault took place: on tribal or North Dakota land.

This ambiguity, this uncertainty, precipitates another sort of nightmare, a legal one: for it isn’t clear if the assault against Geraldine Coutts should be investigated by the state of North Dakota, the small town of Hoopdance, or by tribal police. Initially, it isn’t even clear who has committed it, an Indian or a non-Indian. Joe thinks:

I already knew…that these questions would swirl around the facts. I already knew, too, that these questions would not change the facts. But they would inevitably change the way we sought justice.

A minor problem with The Round House is the seeming precocity of the thirteen-year-old Joe, who isn’t regarded, within the world of the novel, as exceptional or prodigious. Even less believable is his good friend Cappy, who speaks, as surely no thirteen-year-old North Dakota boy has ever spoken, of loving a girl his age with a “true love”: “The Creator made us for each other. Me here. Zelia there. Space was put between us by human error…. Every bit of what we did was made in heaven.”

Interludes in which the boys behave with self-conscious “boyishness” are particularly forced, and feel like filler amid the serious narrative. The reader is advised to suspend disbelief when Joe seems to shift character, for he is our only witness in The Round House, the bearer of the author’s outrage, like those sharp-eyed child-witnesses in Erdrich’s Shadow Tag (2010) who see into the sick, festering heart of their parents’ marriage and take on some of the omniscience of the author.

The language of The Round House is often highly charged and metaphorical, and not merely, or primarily, literal. Joe is the author’s instrument for seeing with a poet’s eye:

The sun fell onto the kitchen floor in golden pools, but it was an ominous radiance, like the piercing light behind a western cloud. A trance of dread came over me, a taste of death like sour milk….

And as Joe approaches the “round house,” the likely scene of the assault:

A low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself. The sound filled me and flooded me. Finally, it ceased. I decided to go forward…. I caught the faint odor of gasoline….
He had attacked her here. The old ceremonial place had told me—cried out to me in my mother’s anguished voice, I now thought, and tears started into my eyes. I let them flood down my cheeks. Nobody was here to see me so I did not even wipe them away. I stood there in the shadowed doorway thinking with my tears. Yes, tears can be thoughts, why not?

The “round house” is a derelict tribal building, used, before 1978, for religious ceremonies at a time when Indians were forbidden to practice their religion by white authorities. Surreptitiously, Indians would gather at the round house and if white authorities raided the building,

water drums and eagle feathers and the medicine bags and birchbark scrolls and sacred pipes were in a couple of motorboats halfway across the lake. The Bible was out and people were reading aloud from Ecclesiastes.

That Geraldine Coutts is raped and beaten in a “sacred space” is the more bitterly ironic, like the legal statute that protects a nonnative from being prosecuted in a tribal court.1

Described by its author as “a suspense novel masking a crusade,” The Round House is a painstakingly narrated account of memory, and of guilt bound up with memory. If the novel is a sort of crusade, galvanized by the author’s outrage against the incursion of federal criminal law into tribal law and custom, it is also an elaborately structured literary work in which polemics are subordinate to the author’s sympathy for her troubled, imperfect characters and “suspense” is rather more theoretical than evident.

Certainly no one would confuse The Round House, or its yet more minimally structured predecessor Shadow Tag, with a generic suspense novel. Like earlier works of fiction by Erdrich, it is indebted to the novels of William Faulkner in which a brooding and eloquent narrator obsesses over an event, criminal or taboo, that comes to acquire a powerful symbolic significance. In Faulkner, the crimes of unrepentant slave owners like Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) constitute the “original sin” of an entire slave-owning society, the inhumanity of privileged whites against helpless blacks, and the tragic consequences that follow for both races.

In Erdrich’s cycle of North Dakota novels, her equivalent of Faulkner’s cycle of Yoknapatawpha County, the perspective that is dramatized is that of the violated, and not, as in Faulkner, the violator; not guilt but rage is the appropriate emotion. (Indeed, the guilt of Faulkner’s privileged whites may strike our twenty-first-century ears as condescendingly racist.) For Erdrich, the original and irrevocable crime of marauding European invaders is the theft of Native American lands and the displacement of Native American tribes onto “reservations” (inevitably in regions in which whites had no commercial interest). This is the primordial theft that lodges deep inside all her Native American characters, not an original sin but the outrage of sin perpetrated upon them. The quotation that begins this review is, more fully:

I saw that the loss of their land was lodged inside of them forever. This loss would enter me, too. Over time, I came to know that the sorrow was a thing that each of them covered up according to their character—my old uncle through his passionate discipline, my mother through strict kindness and cleanly order. As for my grandfather [“Mooshum”], he used the patient art of ridicule.
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    From here on, my review contains spoilers. 

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