His­toric vi­o­lence bleeds into bru­tal at­tack

The Round House

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Tran­ter

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

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