Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What We're Reading: National Book Award for Fiction

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House is this year’s winner of the National Book Award for fiction. The fictional events described in this book occur in the spring and summer of 1988 on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, and the major characters in the book are Native Americans. Geraldine Coutts, a woman whose job it is to archive genealogical records of members of her tribe and to certify individuals who wish to establish membership in the tribe, is asked to bring an important file to a meeting with a young woman. The meeting, held at a ceremonial site called the “Round House” turns out to be an ambush, where she is violently attacked. She is unable or unwilling to identify her attacker. Her husband, a tribal judge, works to discover the assailant’s identity, but when he does so, because of the frustrating disconnection between reservation and federal laws, he is unable to bring him to justice. Their 13-year-old son Joe is prematurely thrust into an adult world by these events. He comes to feel that he and his family are threatened and that he must be the agent of justice, that he must be the one to free his parents from the constant fear they face as his mother’s attacker freely roams the borders of the community in which they live. The events that occurred that spring and summer are narrated in the voice of the young Joe, and though we understand that a now adult Joe is telling us the events of his young life, the world and consciousness of his younger self is recreated with the innocence and plausibility that seem exactly true to a boy of his age.

There is an element of mystery in The Round House that pulls the reader along, but the emotional weight of this moving novel comes from the situation in which Joe finds himself and the choices he must make, choices that a boy his age should not have to make and that represent an early death of innocence. A certain power derives from this situation where moral choices must be made in an environment in which the law has failed, and the story here is reminiscent of some of the most purely tragic issues and compulsions of classic Greek drama. But this book has power and magnitude not just because it tells us the story of young Joe, but because it gives us a privileged view of a whole other world, the world of a Native American reservation and its people, the legacy and traditions by which they live, and the present-day realities they must face. It is a compelling portrait of a community, one in which the tragic, the eccentric, and the comic rest side by side, where a spirit of quiet rebellion and resiliency endures in the face of past and present injustice, and one in which, above all, there is strong bond of love and commitment to each other that shows itself unambiguously when the world outside presses in. This is expressed most clearly in the bond between Joe and his best friend, the handsome and charismatic young Romeo, Cappy, one of the most memorable characters Erdrich has created. Erdrich has given us many engaging characters in her description of this community, creating people we come to care about and feel are not so different from ourselves. They allow us to connect to this world and they make it come alive for us.

The Round House is notable for its craft and for the skillful orchestration of its themes. There are strands to the story that seem desultory. At other times the plot line seems to pause for what feels like a set-aside piece. We are uncertain where events are leading. But this is part of the magic here. In the end, all the stories and strands are artfully drawn together, and we come to understand how the personal events recounted here are thematically mirrored in the historical and contemporary experience of the tribe. The concluding paragraphs of The Round House are an exceptionally well conceived and poignantly written ending to the novel. Life, in both its trials and longings, is large in Erdrich’s writing. Along with the sober recognition of the real, there is a romantic depth of living here, a sense that fate unfolds on a cosmic stage in which the personal fits into the fabric of the communal and universal. It is a cosmology that gives personal tribulation magnitude and meaning, a native vision of the world that is ancient and predates the idea of redemption or the temporizing solace that good arises from evil. The Round House is a novel written by an artist passionate about the story she has to tell and fully in command of her craft.

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