This novel by Louise Erdrich has a little bit of just about everything I love in fiction. There are kids on the cusp of being adults, geeking out over Star Trek: TNG in the same summer that they’re touched by the kind of real tragedy and horror that is all too common in this galaxy at this time. There’s a mystery and a smattering of amateur sleuthing (by those very same boys). There’s a community full of individuals, richly and carefully drawn, all with lives that stretch beyond the pages of the book. There are hints of mysticism that feel real, not just magical flourishes. There’s an honest but satisfying ending, where pain lingers but time passes. And there’s Erdrich’s always reliably comfortable prose. I haven’t loved all her books as much as I loved this one, but I always know I’m in good hands when I pick up one of her book.
The story of The Round House begins with the rape and attempted murder of Geraldine Coutts, mother of Joe, the novel’s 13-year-old narrator. Joe spends the summer watching his mother and father deal with the aftereffects of the crime and trying to find a way to recover the happy family he once new. And so he enlists his friends to investigate the crime and bring justice to the rapist.
This story could have gone wrong in so many ways, but Erdrich handles it with incredible sensitivity—and not without humor. The premise sounds rather a lot like the all-too-common trope of the hero taking revenge on the man who hurt his woman—and certainly Joe’s quest is influenced by those kinds of stories. But the heart of the story is really about learning to feel for others and with others, to let them feel what they feel in their own way.
I’ve read lots of stories about crime victims and plenty about survivors of murder, but stories of people who are close to trauma, but not the direct victims are more unusual. All such stories I can think of are of the revenge drama type (and those often involve a dead or missing victim). It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—how other people’s trauma affects those close to them. There’s a remarkable scene in this book when Joe goes to the Round House that was the scene of the crime and experiences what seems like a flashback, as he imagines the crime in vivid detail and begins to shake uncontrollably. His mother’s pain, while uniquely her own, is also his pain. This is natural and normal, and I appreciated Erdrich’s handling of Joe’s particular pain in the face of his mother’s trauma.
Much of the book deals, I think, in the way all people are individuals in a community. My pain is your pain; your pain is mine. Yet my pain is also my own, properly known only to me; just as your pain is your own, known only to you. The same is true of passion and pleasure and dreams. We are touched by the feelings of everyone around us, and those feelings become wrapped up in our own feelings. We are ourselves, and we are part of those around us. Our stories are our own yet part of others’ stories. Erdrich explores that tension with insight in this moving novel, my favorite of the four I’ve read so far.