Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

The Round House is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Joe, who lives with his parents on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. One day, his mom returns home late after being brutally attacked and raped. Though his mother, Geraldine, refuses or is unable to speak much about what happened, Joe and his father, Bazil (a local judge), are determined to bring her attacker to justice.

One of the things that I was glad the book addressed--though in some ways this issue was dropped towards the end--are the challenges present in the tribal legal system. The book takes place in the 1980s, but I imagine many of the same obstacles are still in place. The location (which she doesn't know) of Geraldine's rape is of utmost importance because it signifies how the rapist can be prosecuted, and without that knowledge, the case rests in a no-man's land, unable to be prosecuted by tribal, state, or federal authorities. The novel also highlights the importance of tribal authority. Before, I would have been tempted to say, "Why do we need a separate tribal government? Can't they just fall under the same state/federal guidelines most people would?" But The Round House not only highlights the long history of atrocities against Native Americans, it also demonstrates the significance of continued tribal autonomy in issues like prosecuting rape.

I've written before (as a significant problem in We Were the Mulvaneys and as a nagging issue in Finnikin of the Rock) about my concerns with novels that address rape from the point of view of the male relatives--the husbands, sons, and brothers of raped women. On the one hand, I would never say that a story about rape must always be from the victim's point of view. Clearly there are interesting and compelling issues to be explored about how family is affected by a traumatic event perpetrated against one of its members. But, at the same time, I can't help but feel that something is wrong in a novel where a woman is raped and the book is only about men--her son, her son's friends, her husband, her rapist. Part of the point of the book is how Geraldine shrinks into herself--nearly loses herself completely--after the rape, but we never learn what's going on in her head the way we do with Joe and Bazil. And, in some small way, to me, that is doubly-diminishing. She is re-victimized as a non-entity, present just an object for the men to react against. This is not to say that The Round House is sexist or treats rape lightly, particularly because the book clearly shows Erdrich's sympathy with survivors of sexual violence and Erdrich works to emphasize significant problems with our legal system (something that's timely given that sexual assault on tribal lands was a big issue with the recent re-adoption of VAWA). Nonetheless, I was disappointed to see Geraldine given so little character, though she does emerge more strongly at the end of the novel.

Despite my disappointment with aspects of Geraldine's characterization, her son, Joe, is fully drawn, and Erdrich does an excellent job of capturing his range of emotions and confusion. At thirteen he's starting to become an adult, and the challenges he faces in seeing his parents as people (not just all-knowing parents) for the first time and being privy to "adult" information are addressed compassionately and intelligently.

The book is the April selection for my book club, and I'm most looking forward to discussing the ending, which is somewhat surprising. I can't decide if it's realistic or not, or whether it's too realistic... I'm just not sure, though it certainly felt a bit incomplete. But I think my reaction can be attributed to my desire for a certain kind of ending rather than to failure on Erdrich's part.

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