- - Thursday, November 15, 2012

By Louise Erdrich
Harper, $27.99, 321 pages

Novelists who can create vivid, plausible, living characters are rare, but novelists who also can create a believable world and a compelling story for those characters are blessed. Louise Erdrich is blessed.

In “The Round House,” her 26th book (14 novels, three books of poetry, two of nonfiction, one of stories and six children’s books) Ms. Erdrich proves once again why she’s often been honored for her writing. In addition to a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (the only U.S. prize given for works that foster understanding of issues of racism, diversity and social justice) Ms. Erdrich also has been a finalist for both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

That she frequently writes about American Indians should come as no surprise. Her father was of German descent, but her mother was a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and her mother’s father was a tribal chief. She knows her family history for the past two centuries.

That’s one of the two main reasons why “The Round House” rings so true. The other is that she’s a very good writer. Want to get as close as you’ll ever get to feeling like a 13-year-old Ojibwe boy on a reservation in North Dakota in 1988 or like his tribal judge father or his beautiful, talented and almost murdered mother or his three best pals or his grandfather Mooshum, who knows all the old ways of Indian life? Open this book and begin to read.

Joe Bazil is the protagonist-narrator of “The Round House,” the reservation’s cylindrically shaped meeting house, sweat lodge and religious center. But the building also is the place where his mother, Geraldine Coutts, is brutally attacked and would have been, except for her heroic escape, killed.

When Joe visits her in the hospital, he tells us, “Now I saw my mother’s face puffed with welts and distorted to an ugly shape. She peered through slits in the swollen flesh of her lids.

“‘What happened?’ I asked stupidly.

“She didn’t answer. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She blotted them away with a gauze-wrapped fist. I’m alright, Joe. Look at me. See?

“And I looked at her. But she was not alright.”

Gerry is so traumatized that she is unable — unwilling? — to tell her husband and only child who did it.

Both in the hospital and for a very long time once she’s home, she will not reveal why she went to the office (where she’s a tribal enrollment specialist) on a Sunday to get a specific file. Her lawyer-judge husband tries, within the boundaries of the law he both reveres and lives by, to learn the identity of his wife’s attacker but is frustrated at every turn.

Joe also is frustrated. His mother won’t talk, and his father won’t tell him what little he knows. But an Indian reservation — they call it “the rez” — is a small world, and it doesn’t take Joe long to learn who tried to kill his mother and why the attacker is able to elude the law and eventually walk freely about the reservation and the town.

A 13-year-old boy with a good mind and a loving heart is not going to be held back for long, and soon Joe and his best friend, Cappy, are talking revenge and retribution. And at that point, “The Round House” becomes a thriller, but one with literary, not just whodunit, muscle, as Ms. Erdrich combines psychological insight and crafty plotting to superb effect.

In addition to characterization and plot, the author has mastered many other facets of good writing. Here’s part of her description of the annual summer powwow: “They had coolers — one stuffed with sandwiches, pickles, tubs of baked beans and potato salad, bannock, jelly, crab apples, blocks of commodity cheese. The other cooler was full of hot dogs and cold fried rabbit. Soon, around the camp, Suzette and Josey’s married children started pulling up in their low-slung old cars. When the car doors opened, the grandchildren bounced out like Super Balls. They gathered other children from the neighboring camps and moved through the powwow grounds in a tornado of whirling hair and chasing legs and pumping arms.”

In counterpoint to all of this normal activity, Joe and Cappy continue to push forward their plan of revenge. But a question arises: If it can be done, will Joe, who insists he must act alone, be able to do it?

In a recent discussion with Jeffrey Brown of “The News Hour” on PBS, the author said the book is an attempt to deal with a serious problem in the Indian culture. “[T]here is a legacy of violence against Native women that has gotten worse and worse over time. And, historically, the underpinnings lie in the complex nature of the land tenure on Native reservations. Each piece of land has a different jurisdictional authority.

“‘The Round House’ is a sacred place on many reservations. There is a kiva, or there is a sweat lodge, round places. The tepee is round. You know, this [is] the circle that depicts the turn of the Earth itself. And to have this violated does speak to the violation of the culture. But what I think happens and what I think the book talks about is also the resilience of the culture.”

It also “talks about” the immense talent of Louise Erdrich.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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