Once again, and with great effect, Louise Erdrich delves into the rich, deep mine of contemporary American Indian life as she examines not only their social and cultural lives, but certain legal strictures placed upon them by the American legal system.
The central issues in The Round House are determining who can administer justice and prosecute a crime committed against an Indian, and what the human cost is. The U.S. legal system and the tribal justice system have long been in conflict because tribal judges cannot prosecute non-Indians who commit a crime on the reservation. Consequently, there is a very long history in which non-Indians escape prosecution.
According to the "Afterword," one estimate indicates that as many as 86% of rapes of native women are committed by non-native men and few are prosecuted. The novel is, according to Erdrich, "loosely based on so many different cases...that the outcome is pure fiction." Even so, her telling is so compelling and the events so frustrating that the fiction expresses the greater Truth.
The novel opens with the brutal rape of an Indian woman by a white man. Because she has been so traumatized that she cannot remember where the rape occurred, the central problem becomes how to determine the physical location of the rape.
Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe who keeps track of family associations, withdraws from her family and friends after the rape, becoming a recluse in her bedroom, eating barely enough to keep her alive, and unable to speak of the act, even to identify who did it. Ironically, her husband Bazil is a tribal judge. A dispenser of tribal justice, his hands are tied by the issue of geographic jurisdiction. Their son is the adult narrator who tells the story after the passage of many years. Joe was thirteen in 1988, the time of the novel. A visit to the Round House with his buddies leads to the discovery of clues that seem to lead to the rapist, and they embark on a quest to bring the man to justice.
As Joe and his teenage friends assume the task of gathering evidence, Erdrich layers the question of "who done it" with the spiritual mysteries of the Ojibwe nation and the Catholic Church and the lives of kids who are entering a very adult and dangerous world. One cannot be separated from the other in this beautifully plotted story. The characters are fully developed, the situation unfortunately realistic as Erdrich draws the reader into the world she has created. There is tragedy and even comedy as the boys struggle with growing up.
In her fourteenth novel, Erdrich has created a masterful weaving of a traditional crime mystery and the spiritual mysteries in one community of Native Americans. While she forcefully makes her point about the injustices built into our justice system, this is no polemical screed; it is simply a well-written story that should not be missed. The Round House won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.