This is a story that, unfortunately, resonates with current events happening all too often on Indian reservations in this country. It involves violence against Native American women by white men. It is a problem which raises knotty jurisdictional issues for law enforcement.
This may sound familiar to those who follow the news out of Washington. During the debate over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act last year, certain Republicans in Congress balked at some of the provisions because they did not want Native American courts and law enforcement to have authority to arrest and prosecute white perpetrators of such crimes. This is the issue that is at the heart of Louise Erdrich's latest book about Ojibwe culture, the National Book Award winner, The Round House.
The events in the book take place in 1988. In the spring of that year, Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is the victim of a horrific rape. It leaves her physically battered and psychologically traumatized and reluctant to talk to the police or to her husband about what happened.
The story is told, from the perspective of later years, through the eyes of Geraldine's thirteen-year-old son, Joe. The attack on his mother has torn his safe world apart. He longs for justice for her but justice is slow in coming and, meanwhile, his mother has taken to her bed and will not leave it. She exists in a world of solitude that neither Joe nor his father, Bazil, a tribal law judge, seems capable of breaking through.
The investigation of the crime soon enough leads to the arrest of a suspect, but he is a white man, and it is not clear just where the crime took place. Was it on the reservation or off? Which court exactly has jurisdiction over the crime? There seems no doubt that this man is the perpetrator, but soon he is released when jurisdictional issues cannot be decided. This sends Geraldine into an even deeper tailspin of grief and depression.
Joe is understandably frustrated and angry at the course of events and he determines to find a way on his own to wrest justice from this tragic situation. In this, he is aided by his friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus. Much of the story revolves around these four teenage boys' activities in the summer following the attack on Geraldine as they pursue their "investigation" and as Joe slowly evolves a plan. Difficult as the story is, the boys bring a great deal of humor to it. They are, after all, simply goofy, typical teenage boys, full of hormones and curiosity, and eager to grow up.
Bazil, meanwhile, attempts to work through the law, which he reveres, to find justice for his wife, but when the rapist is released from jail and Bazil encounters him at the grocery store, something snaps inside him and he attacks the man. When Joe joins in the attack, it seems to bring Bazil to his senses and he backs away and the man escapes. In tragedy piled on top of tragedy, Bazil then suffers a mild heart attack in the grocery store, further traumatizing his son.
There is so much sadness in this story and yet it never really seems depressing. The saving grace for the Coutts family is their own closeness and the solidarity which the rest of the reservation folk feel with them. Many of their friends and relatives, each in his or her own way, set about trying to heal the family. They are always supported and loved and the sense of community is a palpable part of the tale.
Though, eventually, a kind of rough justice was achieved, the ending of the saga was still more distressing, and yet, it is hard to see how it could have been different. It fit the arc of the story perfectly.
One small quibble: What has Louise Erdrich got against quotation marks? Her writing is lyrical, but sometimes unnecessarily unclear simply because no quotation marks are used. Are we listening to a conversation or reading exposition? Much as I liked the book, this lack irritated me.