Julie's Reviews > The Round House

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
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's review
Jul 29, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, usa-contemporary, best-of-2012, read-2012, american-west, native-american
Recommended for: Everyone
Read from October 28 to 30, 2012

On two successive nights this week I woke suddenly, yelling out in fright. In my dreams I was moments away from becoming the victim of a horrific assault. Shaken, I turned on the light, shifting uncomfortably in sheets soaked in my sweat, and I reached for The Round House. Louise Erdrich’s profound novel haunted my dreams and moved me to tears and laughter in my waking hours.

Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe living on a reservation in North Dakota, doesn’t escape from her nightmare. On a gentle spring Sunday in 1988 her thirteen year old son Joe and her husband Bazil, a tribal judge, peel her fingers from the steering wheel of her car and speed her unyielding body to the hospital. The front of her shirt is covered in vomit and she reeks of gasoline. Raped and nearly burned alive, Geraldine escaped when her captor went in search of matches.

Geraldine’s physical wounds heal in time, but the spirit of this proud, vibrant woman is crushed. She tumbles into depression, refusing to leave her bedroom, barely eating, escaping her terror through the false protection of sleep. The Round House opens with this crime and it becomes the incident which ushers Joe, the novel’s narrator, out of the smooth waters of his childhood into the murky depths of maturity.

The Round House is more than a coming-of-age story. The novel has many layers, each beautifully rendered in language that is so pure it belies the complex themes. The search for Geraldine’s attacker propels the narrative and in this, it is a tense literary thriller. It is an exploration of tribal law and the protracted effort by the federal government to chip away at Native American sovereignty. Tribal political and judicial limbo is a chord that resonates throughout Erdich’s works, yet when told through the perspective of a child it becomes the character’s discovery of his legacy and not the political agenda of the author. It is a novel rich with history, mythology and adventure.

But more than these themes, this is a novel of family. The tight union of Bazil, Geraldine and Joe forms the familial core. Erdrich’s portrait of a strong woman collapsing dug so deeply under my skin – this cold reality was the source of my nightmares. But the ways a husband and a son respond to the woman they love as she falls apart, how hard they work to lift her up and save her, are heartfelt and poignant. Erdrich captures each character’s emotions and reactions in vivid and graceful detail.

The theme of family extends through the tribal community. Erdrich reveals daily life on a reservation. She shows us what we think we know: the poverty and alcoholism on the inside, the marginalization and racism from the outside. But she also conveys a sense of community that few of us will ever experience, no matter how idyllic our childhood. Within the tribe everyone belongs to everyone else – the definition of family is not limited to blood relations. The communal responsibility demonstrates a solid foundation built on shared history and beliefs.

Despite the violent crime that churns the plot, there many moments of levity and sweetness in The Round House The novel’s comic foil is Mooshom, Joe’s ancestor and tribal elder. And I do mean elder. He’s entering his second century as salty as a sailor and with libido to spare. The many scenes Joe shares with his besties Cappy, Angus and Zack are ripe with thirteen year old boy hormones, antics and tenderness.

I can’t sing loudly enough my praises for The Round House. I also can’t believe this is the first Louise Erdrich novel I’ve read. It has been a year of celebrated-American author discoveries for me: Terry Tempest Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, not to mention the astonishing debut of Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist). That they are each deeply connected to the American West is significant to me as a reader. Through their words I have developed a deeper understanding, love and compassion for my enormous and complex backyard.
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Reading Progress

10/28/2012 page 41
12.0% "Can already tell this is going to be extraordinary. Thank heavens- I'm ready to be blown away." 2 comments
10/28/2012 page 100
29.0% "Why have I never read Erdrich before?" 1 comment
10/29/2012 page 130
38.0% "Had a nightmare last night, living out a scene from this story :("
10/30/2012 page 205
61.0% "Woke myself up yelling this morning. This book has really gotten under my skin. Shall finish this evening. Definitely in Best of 2012 list." 1 comment
02/17/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I'm not sure I consider nightmares a good recommendation. But then maybe I'm just a big sissy.

Julie I know, right? I have a lot on my mind AND this book has really touched me- I think I'm working out a lot of scary stuff in my sleep. But man, is this good. It's going to be a 5-star read!

Julie Excellent. A galaxy of stars!!! Review to follow.

Jill I'm reading it now and YES, it's quite good!

message 5: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Julie, you said you wanted something that would blow you away. Glad you found a great one-- maybe nightmares and screaming are not too high a price to pay. Look forward to your review, and Jill's.

Marty Selnick My next book. :-)

Will Byrnes Great job. Julie. Yes, this book is a keeper, well deserving of its NBA nomination.

Michael Very satisfying review. Love it when people get so exuberant over loving a book.

Seems like this one is darker than her past stuff. Glad she went back to Ojibwe themes, as Shadow Tag, about loss of trust in a love relationship, was a disappointment. Eight others I read were all 4 or 5 stars to me. Hope you will consider going back to earlier works, like Love Medicine, Tracks, and The Beet Queen.

message 9: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I second Michael's comment. I haven't picked up one of her books in a while (I should!) but I've read the earlier novels and loved them. Can you tag people in GR? My friend @Jeffrey Erickson has read all of her books, I think. Anyway, she lives here and is twice-celebrated in the Cities. Lovely review.

Julie Thank you, dear ones. I'm eager to read more Erdrich - I think I'm headed for The Plague of Doves next. It introduces characters in The Round House and I'd love to keep them in my life a little while longer.

Michael- I've heard similar comments about Shadow Tag, so I won't put that on my list for now, but Love Medicine and The Beet Queen are definites (Jessica, do you remember The Bean Queen, Phoebe, from CLBB- wonder if this was her inspiration :) ).

message 11: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I do remember her.

Erika Nerdypants I actually loved Shadow Tag...

message 13: by Lynn (new) - rated it 4 stars


Heather Fineisen Reading this now, and feel much the same way, Julie. This offers so much that could easily be missed by a cursory read.

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