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In a Trance of Dread

These words are spoken by a girl named Evelina, one of the principal narrators of The Plague of Doves, whose relationship with her parents suggests the closeness, respect, and mutual love of Joe Coutts and his parents in The Round House, as her role as clear-sighted observer within a maelstrom of adult confusion resembles his. She recalls:

[My mother’s] face, and my father’s face, were naked with love. It wasn’t something we talked about—love—and I was terrified of its expression from the lips of my parents. But they allowed me this one clear look at it. Their love blazed from them.

The risk for the culturally displaced is that family life, the core of their existence, will be undermined by the malevolent, rapacious, larger society beyond the reservation.

Being displaced leads to more specific crimes, like the lynching of blameless Ojibwes in The Plague of Doves by white men intent upon avenging a vicious crime that had been committed, in fact, as we eventually learn, by a white man and not by Ojibwes. This second, vicious crime echoes through decades and generations, even as natives, mixed-bloods, and nonnatives intermarry.

In The Round House, immediately following the rape, Geraldine Coutts sinks into clinical depression and refuses to leave her bed. It isn’t so much the assault itself, terrible as it is, that precipitates this reaction as the victim’s sense of helplessness and passivity: she doesn’t want to tell even her husband the identity of her rapist, for fear that the psychopath will murder her family as well as her.

The exasperation Joe begins to feel for his mother in this inert state is entirely believable: “It was as though I had been locked up with a raging corpse.” Perhaps less believable is the absence in the text of an acknowledgment of a community of rape victims, so to speak. Both Bazil Coutts (one of the multiple narrators of The Plague of Doves) and his wife would be acquainted with numerous rape cases, hardly a rarity on Native American reservations. But Geraldine Coutts appears to be unnaturally isolated—like someone suffering from a rare disease of which no one else has heard.2

Not all whites are “skins of evil,” but an unforgivable majority of whites are indifferent to the sins of other whites, perpetrated against native peoples. Or they shield such whites, like the villainous psychopath of The Round House, who would go unpunished by “white” law. Evoked in both The Round House and The Plague of Doves is a tale of a cannibal white man, Liver-Eating Johnson:

[Mooshum] related the horrifying story of Liver-Eating Johnson’s hatred of the Indian and how in lawless days this evil trapper and coward jumped his prey and was said to cut the liver from his living victim and devour that organ right before their eyes. He liked to run them down, too, over great distances.
(The Plague of Doves)
[Mooshum] said, I ever tell you boys about the time I outrun Liver- Eating Johnson? How that old rascal used to track down Indians and kill us and take and eat our livers? That was a white wiindigoo, but when I was young and fleet, I run him down and whittled him away bite by bite and paid him back. I snapped off his ear with my teeth, and then his nose. Want to see his thumb?
(The Round House)

Liver-Eating Johnson is but one example in Erdrich’s Indian lore of a white “wiindigoo”—a soulless creature who must be killed in self-defense. But there is a technique to successfully killing a wiindigoo: “You couldn’t do it alone.” In The Round House, the acts of the psychopath (who is revealed as a murderer as well as a rapist) “Cry Out to Heaven for Vengeance,” which duly takes place. Interlarded through The Round House are references to law books—(“the law book my father called The Bible. Felix S. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law”)—and court cases in which Joe’s father has ruled (they are among the very few in which the Native American judge is able to claim “limited jurisdiction over a non-Indian” subject). Clearly, Erdrich suggests, Native American criminal justice should not be subordinate to state or federal US law; in an interview she has said that the “survival” of Native Americans depends upon their young people becoming lawyers. But there are instances in which even tribal law is irrelevant, for the killing of a wiindigoo has precedence, as Joe’s father tells him, in a “very old law” that supersedes and nullifies merely human law.

Rendered impotent by federal law, which forbids arresting, indicting, and trying US citizens in tribal courts when they’ve committed crimes on Native American reservations against Native Americans, Bazil Coutts explains his moral position to his son:

I ask myself in this situation, as one sworn to uphold the law in every case, what would I do if I had any information that would lead to the identity of the [rapist]…. I’ve decided that I would do nothing…. Any judge knows that there are many kinds of justice—for instance, ideal justice as opposed to the best-that-we-can-do justice…. There was no question of [the rapist’s] guilt. He may even have wanted to get caught and punished. We can’t know his mind. [The rapist’s] killing is a wrong thing which serves an ideal justice. It settles a legal enigma. It threads that unfair maze of land title law by which [the rapist] could not be prosecuted. His death was the exit….
It could be argued that [the rapist] met the definition of a wiindigoo, and that with no other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law.

Thousands of years after Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, in which the impersonality and durability of law is shown to supersede the ferocity of blood vengeance, it would be a rare work of literary fiction that shrank from condoning some sort of vigilante law in the face of the failure of impersonal law. Popular wisdom concurs that these are not base motives for revenge, but the stirrings of a higher morality, a “higher law,” to which one has the right to appeal if the law ordained by governments fails or is corrupt. (Hamlet is the great “revenge” play—young Hamlet’s reluctance to exact vengeance is felt by him, and by the spectator, as a moral failing and not a lofty, Kantian virtue.)

Except for the young age of the person who exacts the vigilante justice, The Round House is not revolutionary or original in this regard, and does not appear to have aroused controversy since its publication in 2012. Certainly the execution of the rapist/wiindigoo is not an easy task for the boy, and is not carried out alone but with at least two collaborators, of whom one is the female twin of the rapist. The aftermath of the killing is fraught with wholly credible guilt and unease, as well as the accidental death of one of the collaborators. Joe is made to think:

There was in me…a disconnect so profound I could think of nothing but obliteration. I would somehow find the means to get drunk. The world would take on that amber tone. Things would soften to brown as if in old photographs.

The Round House is not, like the time-shifting Plague of Doves, a “whodunit”: we soon learn the identity of the perpetrator of the despicable rape. What is indeterminate is the punishment—if there will be punishment, and what its nature will be, and its aftermath, arguably the most interesting phase of any act of violence. As usual in works of fiction by Louise Erdrich, The Round House contains passages of Catholic theology, morality, and reasoning (the author was brought up Catholic and attended a reservation Catholic school), and these confront Joe’s anguish only abstractly, as in this exchange with the (white) Catholic priest Father Travis:

We’ve got to address the problem of evil in order to understand your soul or any other human soul…. There are types of evil, did you know that? There is material evil, that which causes suffering without reference to humans but gravely affecting humans. Disease and poverty, calamities of any natural sort…. These we can’t do anything about…. Moral evil is different. It is caused by human beings….
Now you came up here, Joe, to investigate your soul hoping to get closer to God because God is all good, all powerful, all healing, all merciful…. So you have to wonder why a being of this immensity and power would allow this outrage—that one human being should be allowed by God to directly harm another human being….
The only answer to this, and it isn’t an entire answer…is that God made human beings free agents…. And in order to protect our human freedom, God doesn’t often, very often at least, intervene. God can’t do that without taking away our moral freedom. Do you see?

Joe half-sees, but clearly the answer isn’t satisfactory in the face of his mother’s suffering, his father’s humiliation, and his own misery. More ambiguously, Father Travis tells him, “We are never so poor that we cannot bless another human, are we? So it is that every evil, whether moral or material, results in good. You’ll see.” The priest seems to know what Joe is planning to do but makes no urgent attempt to dissuade him. As his parents, who realize after the fact what he has done, do not speak to him about it at all: “There was nothing to be said…. Nobody shed tears and there was no anger.” One has the sense of a tragic condition made worse by an obtuse and seemingly irremediable criminal justice system in which individuals must follow their own consciences and hope to survive. For Joe and his family, “The sentence was to endure.”

  1. 2

    In fact it is estimated that one in three Native American women living on tribal lands are raped, or sexually assaulted, in their lifetimes, more than twice the number of nonnative women. A high percentage of these rapes are committed by nonnative men, and are rarely prosecuted. In 2011, the Justice Department failed to prosecute 65 percent of all reported rape cases on tribal lands, and it is estimated that a low percentage of rapes are actually reported.

    The Indian Health Service is tragically underfunded. Crimes of various types on tribal land—domestic violence, child abuse, drug use (especially methamphetamine), robbery, and murder, as well as rape—are so frequent that the Justice Department seems to have virtually given up prosecuting them, as tribal police frequently make no arrests when crimes are reported. A Native American woman advocate for victims of sexual violence (herself a rape victim) suggested that sexual assault was “virtually routine” in her community. See Timothy Williams, “For Native American Women, Scourge of Rape, Rare Justice,” The New York Times, May 22, 2012. 

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