"Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation,” begins “The Round House,” Louise Erdrich's wise and suspenseful new novel. Bazil and Joe, a tribal judge and his 13-year-old son, work to pry loose the stalky shoots squeezing through the cracks between the brown shingles covering the cement blocks of their North Dakota home on the Ojibwe reservation. It seems like a Sunday afternoon worthy of Norman Rockwell, until the simple question: “Where's your mother?” Geraldine was to have made a quick trip to the office where she worked, in a department of one, on tribal matters, but had not come home to make dinner.
She survives a brutal rape and disintegrates into a profound depression as legal ambiguities undermine judicial process. Justice runs up against conflicts over whether the crime was committed on federal, legal or tribal land, and whether the perpetrator was Caucasian or Native American. This thorny mess of jurisdiction means that victims — and their families — languish as the wheels of justice stand still.
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“The Round House” is Erdrich's 14th novel and the second in a series that began with the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Plague of the Doves.” It focuses on Joe, whose parents inhabited the earlier novel. While Erdrich's voice as well as her powers of insight and imagination fully infuse this novel, it departs from her traditional style. While her earlier novels, beginning with “Love Medicine,” seem to be a series of interconnected narratives, this one is powered by the force of Joe, the narrator, who gives it such urgency. While Erdrich steered clear of politics in the past, she breaks that practice in this novel. While this may have been new territory for Erdrich, she shows no tentative trace. She writes so perceptively and brilliantly about the adolescent passion for justice that one is transported northward to her home territory.
As she was writing “The Round House,” Erdrich was diagnosed with breast cancer. While initially reluctant to talk about a disease that was not part of her novel, she explained: “I think it's important to say what you've gone through because I felt a kinship with other women who went through it.” As she drew inspiration from those before her, Erdrich hopes others will do so from her story. She had no family history of breast cancer.
"That's my public service announcement," she says: "Mammograms."
Before she embarked on her book tour — a time of jittery feelings — Erdrich spoke with us from her Minnesota home.
Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in 1988?
A: I had it set in the present and went back to the past. 1988 was a year that all the cultural things that a boy would have experienced at the time were familiar to me and I could go back to it with a lot of emotional depth. And I thought that it might be more powerful, in the end, to know that the exact problem with jurisdiction and the inability to find justice was even more pronounced now.
Q: Have jurisdictional conflicts intensified over the years?
A: The problems with jurisdiction haven't gotten better, and the news has really filtered out into the surrounding communities so that a criminal person, a sexual offender, would understand that it would be very hard to be prosecuted on a reservation.
These people will actually target and do harm to people on reservations knowing how hard it is to get prosecuted. That's a problem that was not widely understood. Reservations have become less isolated in some cases, because of casino gambling and increased use of transportation, and the knowledge that it's very hard to prosecute has begun to filter out.
Q: Do Native American reservations intensify problems that may exist in the outside world?
A: I wanted to tell a story that was universal: The story of a boy's relationship with his mother and father can happen anywhere. Injustice in the case of rape is widely known, and (I was exploring) how a family would react.
Q: Is this new territory for you?
A: This is the first time I've written a book that was at once about human relationships, and yet very political, so I would encourage readers to look at the end. (An afterword discusses the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, which aims to reduce violence in tribal communities, and includes references to organizations working to advocate for Native American women.) When I started the book, I had the knowledge of this tremendously agonizing situation that is a truth on reservations, but as I wrote the book, it became an interior, psychological drama as I lived this boy's life. He was with me all the time.
Q: Did Joe come to you as a fully formed character?
A: He absolutely did. I had no idea of how I would approach this subject. I was completely at loose ends and probably impossible to live with because I was going on long walks and going back and forth to North Dakota, thinking, "How am I going to tell this story?" It's too political, I can't talk about it, I don't know what to say. He came to me actually because I was digging roots and trees out of my parents' foundation.
Q: But this isn't an autobiographical novel, is it?
A: I always say things are never autobiographical, but sometimes a little chore magnifies itself into something else. And as I was driving home, I had to pull the car over because I was hearing this boy talking about how he was engaged in the same thing I was doing with my dad: It was about these roots that invaded the foundation of the house. It become so much more, when he knows that the roots of injustice have torn into his family.
Q: And how did you start writing about Joe? What's your writing process and space like?
A: I have a nice old chair that I've always written in; I've had it re-covered twice. It's a big old comfy arm chair. I have a nice piece of maple paneling, and I've always used this board. It's a great desk.
I write everything by hand and then I put everything into the computer. I like having the handwritten manuscripts. I have these black, artist's spiral bound notebooks. So if I get lost in the murk, I can go back and look at my first impulse. I like going back and seeing the first impulse to write a piece.
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune's literary editor.
The Round House
By Louise Erdrich, Harper, 321 pages, $27.99