October 7, 2012

Violating the sacred

“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $29.99, 336 pages)

“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $29.99, 336 pages)

Louise Erdrich has created an oeuvre that is unique in American fiction. She combines excellent prose with captivating storytelling while unveiling a community much neglected, that of Native Americans. While other good writers address this diverse group, she has done so now with 14 novels, along with short stories, poetry, nonfiction and children’s books.

While her novels are primarily stories, they also provide information and greater understanding of Native people. Set primarily in 1988, “The Round House,” her latest, tells the story of the rape of an Ojibwe woman, Geraldine Coutts, and what follows.

In the same North Dakotan community where Erdrich set her 2008 novel, “The Plague of Doves,” the story is told by Geraldine’s 13-year-old son, Joe, some 20 years later.

Geraldine is a lawyer, and Bazil, her husband and Joe’s father, is a judge. An important element in the story is “the tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape on many reservations,” as Erdrich writes in an Afterword.

There, she mentions a 2009 report by Amnesty International that included these statistics: “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.”

Geraldine is traumatized and reluctant to give any details about the attack. Bazil wants to know just where it happened, because if didn’t happen on reservation land, the rapist cannot be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, Joe is anxious to find his mother’s attacker. He and his three friends search the area near the Round House, a sacred space and a place of worship for the Ojibwe that sits near the border of the reservation.

He uncovers details about his mother’s attack, but also learns secrets about the tribe’s history.

Erdrich grounds her story in a time and place, and includes details about Indian life: “the only way you can tell an Indian is an Indian is to look at that person’s history.”

One character says, “You go to your doodem first. . . . Find the ajijaak,” noting that Joe’s father and grandfather were ceremoniously taken into the crane clan, or Ajijaak. And the crane was Joe’s “doodemag,” his luck.

Later, the narrator explains that “an Ojibwe person’s clan meant everything at one time and no one didn’t have a clan, thus you knew your place in the world and your relationship to all other beings.”

At times, this kind of detail feels intrusive, as if imparting an anthropology lesson that interrupts the story. Yet it also feels needed. Even if this borders on being didactic, it’s good to learn such details.

Erdrich also shows her poetic skills, as in this passage: “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.”

Much of the novel is taken up with Joe and his friends’ exploits as rambunctious boys. They encounter danger and learn surprising things about the local priest. The book is a coming-of-age story as well as a mystery.

And while the suspense eventually builds and comes to a riveting end, the narrative meanders too much along the way.

Although “The Round House” is not among Erdrich’s best, it is one more piece of a remarkable body of work that deserves reading. She is one of our literature’s treasures.

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