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.
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.”
From here on, my review contains spoilers. ↩
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. ↩