FICTION: "The Round House," by Louise Erdrich

  • Article by: JAMES CIHLAR , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2012 - 3:33 PM

Set in 1988 on a North Dakota reservation, the 14th novel from Pulitzer finalist Louise Erdrich is the compelling story of a 13-year-old boy thrust into manhood after his mother is the victim of a brutal crime.

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Louise Erdrich at BirchBark Books in Minneapolis

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An artfully balanced mystery, thriller and coming-of-age story, Louise Erdrich's "The Round House" is the gripping tale of the effects of violence on a family.

Repeating characters from "The Plague of Doves," a Pulitzer finalist in 2009, "The Round House" is a sequel of sorts. Fans may marvel that Erdrich trades her signature use of multiple narrators and interwoven plotlines for a more traditional format in one of her North Dakota novels. Yet she also advances the exploration of her abiding themes, particularly the difference between vengeance and justice. This book stands well on its own while enriching Erdrich's oeuvre.

When Geraldine Coutts, wife of Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, is raped, her 13-year-old son, Joe, who narrates the book, wants justice. But law is complicated, particularly on the reservation. "If there was one law that could be repealed or amended for Indians to this day, that would be Public Law 280." Passed in 1953, this law "gave certain states criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indian lands within their borders." It doesn't help that Geraldine can't remember on which of "three classes of land" -- state, federal or tribal -- she was attacked.

Tired of waiting on desultory authorities, Joe vows revenge, despite his mother's protests. Even in her depressed state, she recognizes his vulnerability. Visiting the grave of Holy Track, an Ojibwe boy lynched by white settlers in 1911 as retaliation for murders he didn't commit, Joe realizes, "He was only thirteen. My age." Now in 1988, 77 years later, will Joe's destiny mirror-image Holy Track's? Forced to grow up quickly, he knows enough to fear "the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb." Holy Track paid the price for the community's knee-jerk reaction of seeking revenge after an attack; if, in an obverse situation, Joe deliberately exacts vengeance, what cosmic repercussions will he trigger?

Joe and his friends Cappy, Zack and Angus embark on a dangerous quest to solve the mystery. As they turn up evidence and consider suspects, both white and Indian, they get varying degrees of help from a cast of memorable characters, including Joe's Aunt Sonja, a former stripper, foul-mouthed Grandma Ignatia Thunder and Linda Wishkob, whose chapter, "The Years of My Birth," was selected for "The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012," edited by Dave Eggers. By the end, additional crimes are revealed, with far-reaching implications. Peppered with sly references to the 1980s -- "Star Wars," "MacGyver," "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- this novel will have you reading at warp speed to see what happens next.

In her afterword, Erdrich thanks her daughters for support during her recent treatment for breast cancer, deepening the tribute of this book about the sacrifices children make for parents.

James Cihlar's second book of poetry, "Rancho Nostalgia," will be published in 2013 by Dream Horse Press.

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  • THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich.

  • Louise Erdrich.

  • THE ROUND HOUSE

    By: Louise Erdrich.

    Publisher: Harper, 317 pages, $27.99

    Review: A combination thriller, mystery and coming-of-age tale, "The Round House" is a gripping story about vengeance, justice and the sacrifice of family.

    Event: 7 p.m. Tue., St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 1917 Logan Av. S., Mpls., sponsored by Birchbark Books.

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