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Thursday, October 11, 2012 - Page updated at 02:30 p.m.
'The Round House': Louise Erdrich's novel of a brutal assault and its aftermath
By by Richard Wakefield
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Round House'
by Louise Erdrich
Harper, 336 pp., $26.99
It is an ordinary summer day in 1988, except that Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman who works in the tribal records office on her North Dakota reservation, is late getting home to her husband and son. Her son Joe tells us, "Women don't realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening." "Her absence," Joe says, "stopped time."
The moment of "stopped time" will be drawn out into calamity, terror and a long, long aftermath. "The Round House," Louise Erdrich's new novel, just named a National Book Award finalist in fiction, explores the consequences of a brutal rape, as well as the historical and personal events leading up to it. In her 2008 novel "The Plague of Doves" (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), Erdrich laid out some of the strands of racism and injustice that are braided into the plot of "The Round House," but the new novel is very different and stands completely on its own. Where "The Plague of Doves" shifted from narrator to narrator and included a huge cast of characters, some of them bizarre, as well as long excursions into folklore, "The Round House" is told by one narrator, Joe, and focuses like a laser on one tightly linked series of events.
The story draws the reader unstoppably page by page: Who did it? Why? What justice can the convoluted laws of the overlapping jurisdictions of governments possibly exact? And most crucially, what will Joe, who is 13 when the rape occurs, do with the awful knowledge he gains? He sets out to find his mother's attacker, a task made all the more difficult because she withholds information, but in solving that mystery he walks into what he calls "the gut kick of our history." For anyone, the age of 13 can be a turning point; for Joe, its many turns make him dizzy, spinning him into a particularly fraught manhood caught in the conflict of cultures that have been at odds for centuries. He becomes a full citizen of a world where the violence of the past might reassert itself at any moment. Lives are cut short or unalterably changed in a heartbeat. "I had three friends," he says. "I still keep up with two of them. The other is a white cross on the Montana Hi-line."
True to these perilous passages, Joe is sometimes a grim, vengeful warrior, sometimes an easily distracted child, and sometimes a Hardy boy caught up in solving a crime. He is also a poet who sees the world through the lens of his own experience and of his inheritance.
As a crane flies past his bedroom window, he says, "That evening it cast the image not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from the slender body. Then the feathers took fire so the creature was consumed by light." He understands that what he sees is an illusion, wrought by "some refraction of brilliance," but he understands, too, that the "angel ... consumed by light" is also utterly real.
Federal Way's Richard Wakefield's latest book is "A Vertical Mile," a poetry collection by Able Muse Press.
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