Historic violence bleeds into brutal attack
The Round House
By Louise Erdrich Constable & Robertson, 336pp, $29.99
LOUISE Erdrich’s new novel, which won this year’s US National Book Award, presents a story that is at once firmly positioned in time and place and also redolent of myth, dense with symbolism and suffused with tragic portent.
The year is 1988 and the novel’s narrator, Joe, has just turned 13. He lives on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, where his father, Bazil, is a judge and his mother, Geraldine, works as a tribal enrolment specialist. They are a stable, educated, middle-class family, yet they are not insulated from the violence of history and its living consequences.
This is a community where old people remember the times of starvation at the creation of the reservation, and the families of men who were lynched live side by side with the families of lynchers, haunted by ‘‘ old brutality that hadn’t yet bled itself out’’.
Within the first few pages, a peaceful Sunday summer afternoon is shattered when Geraldine returns home unexpectedly late. She is bleeding, bruised and shaking uncontrollably, and smells awfully like gasoline.
When Joe and his father take her to the local hospital we immediately confront the everyday local drama of racism. A pregnant white woman in the waiting room challenges Joe: ‘‘ Don’t you Indians have your own hospital over there? Aren’t you building a new one?’’
She is unmoved when Joe explains the emergency room is under construction. A moment later she remarks to the old woman sitting next to her: ‘‘ Looked like that poor woman had a miscarriage or maybe — her voice went sly — a rape.’’ These words ‘‘ stabbed my thoughts,’’ Joe thinks, ‘‘ as she had meant them to do.’’ He knows his mother can’t be pregnant, so miscarriage can’t apply. ‘‘ So that left the other word.’’
Psychological and physical violence pervade the setting, from the casual brutality of the pregnant woman’s words to the ultraviolence of Geraldine’s attack, recounted in ever more disturbing detail as the story unfolds, and Erdrich also tackles the issue of alcohol-fuelled domestic abuse.
The title itself initially may suggest a knockout punch in boxing, but here it refers to the round house on the outskirts of town, a ritual gathering place built by Native Americans that has since fallen into disuse, and the site of the final stages of Geraldine’s attack.
The precise location of the attack becomes immensely significant as the investigation proceeds: not only is the assault a violation of a sacred site but the place itself occupies an ambiguous legal status and comes to stand for the contested nature of land and broader issues of Native American juridical rights.
Because Geraldine was blindfolded for some of the drawn-out assault, she is unable to say exactly where the rape took place — somewhere near the round house, where she was eventually taken, but it turns out that a few metres here or there matters a lot. The round house is situated on the border of lands with various legal status, including tribal trust land, allotments and state parkland — and Native Americans don’t have the right to prosecute non-native people for crimes committed on tribal land.
Because the police are unable to determine exactly where the attack occurred, ‘‘ there is nowhere to stand’’ in legal terms, as Joe’s father says. The rapist — a man described by Joe as ‘‘ a skin of evil’’ — escapes prosecution even when Geraldine overcomes her fears of reprisal and names him, and reveals other crimes she witnessed. Questions of justice and the relationship between white courtroom processes, tribal law and Christian morality preoccupy the story, and come to obsess Joe.
The months that follow Geraldine’s attack