The Round House

Round HouseThis 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.

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9 Responses to The Round House

  1. Richard Gilbert says:

    I read this back in 2012 and loved it too. In fact, I read it as part of my university’s Common Book vetting, and we tried to get her to come but couldn’t.

  2. Jenny says:

    I really like Louise Erdrich (though as you say, not all her books equally — though all of them a lot, so far) and this sounds wonderful. I’ve been reading them in order of publication, though I don’t think you have to. Looking forward to this one.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been paying no attention at all to publication order, and it has worked out fine. I know some of the characters turn up in multiple books, but it doesn’t seem essential to recognize them. I do wish I were better at remembering characters, so I could see those connections, but I don’t ever feel I’m missing out.

  3. Have I asked you before to recommend which Louise Erdrich book would be a good one to start with? Is this one the best one?

    • Teresa says:

      This is my favorite of the four that I’ve read. I know you tend to avoid stories with rape in them, so this may not be the place to start. It’s also a little different from a lot of her other books in that it just had one narrator–so it’s maybe not representative of her usual style.

      As for others, I really loved The Painted Drum and Love Medicine. I liked The Plague of Doves a little less, but it’s still good. I suggest just looking up summaries and seeing which storyline appeals to you. I think all her books are pretty highly regarded.

  4. Christy says:

    “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 really like how you captured that theme; that really rings true to my reading of the book as well.

  5. Pingback: The Round House by Louise Erdrich | A Good Stopping Point

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