First a little back story on how this book ended up in my to-read pile in the first place. I have always meant to read Erdrich. Her books, mostly centered on the reservations and/or tribes of the upper plains (mostly North Dakota) have won numerous accolades and awards. She is also an author that shows up as a good reading suggestion based on my own personal reader profile. I knew this, but I just never seemed to get around to one of her books. I think it was because I had a handle on what readers I could suggest her to and I had positive feedback from these readers. With so many other books and authors, I felt like I had Erdrich under control without having to read one.
And then last Fall I had a student whose favorite author was Erdrich. I was even more intrigued because she was from Arkansas, and had no special affinity for North Dakota or Native Americans AND our reading preferences were eerily similar. During the Fall 2012 semester, Erdrich also won the National Book Award for The Round House. Use this link to see her acceptance speech.
Okay, these were enough signs that it was time for me to read Erdrich. I placed the audio on hold in November (the student told me it was especially good, see the end of the review for those details) and waited. It was quite the popular book, so I didn't get it until February and I listened to it in March. I happy to report, this book is worth the hype.
Here is a quick plot set-up. Our narrator is Joe, an Ojibwe Indian of the reservation in North Dakota. The story is told from his point of view as an adult, who has become a tribal lawyer and judge (just like his father before him) but the entire story takes place during his 13th summer (1988) when his mom is raped. The story is from his perspective looking back on everything that happened that summer and how it changed his life forever.
To start with my talk of the appeal, or why you would want to read this book, I found the citation by the National Book Foundation to accurately capture this, so I will begin with their words:
"In this haunting, powerful novel, Erdrich tells the story of a family and community nearly undone by violence. Using the quiet, reflective voice of a young boy forced into an early adulthood following a brutal assault on his mother, Erdrich has created an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offers a portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories."I think this sums up everything the novel is about and the over all feel of the story. It is important to note here that since Joe's dad is the tribal judge, there are interesting scenes where they discuss specific cases as well as the intricacies and contradictions in the justice system, especially when you are dealing with three jurisdictions-- state, federal, and tribal.
Weaved into the mystery/criminal justice story are the stories of Joe's coming of age and tribal life in the late 1980s.
Let's talk about the huge coming of age theme part of the story first. Joe is telling us his story. He is looking back, as a well adjusted adult on the pivotal summer of his life and how it changed him forever, making him the man he is now. Although we might not agree with the choices Joe ultimately makes and upsetting things end up happening, the overall message is that things happened the way they had to. Joe is obviously at a good point in his life as a adult, despite what transpired that summer. So while there is sadness here, the book is not depressing, as Joe let's us know throughout the book that he is a happily married, successful adult.
As I mentioned there is also lots of detail about tribal life worked into the story. For example, a huge scene in the story takes place during a tribal ceremony at the Round House of the title. The juxtaposition of the two events (I don't want to give anything away) is amazing. Actually, I have a better phrase and it describes the entire feel of the book perfectly-- that scene and others throughout the story are beautifully heart-wrenching. The entire book is constructed in a way that has beauty despite the heart-wrenching things that are happening to Joe's family and their community. This is the essence of the novel's appeal to readers.
The mystery aspects of the story, working out who brutally attacked his mother and why keeps this quiet, thoughtful story moving at an engrossing pace. As details unfold, and Joe and his friend Cappy in particular play detective, the reader is compelled to keep reading. Things move slowly at first, but eventually Joe and Cappy are caught up in a quest for justice that, while chased after with honorable intentions, is not going to end well. As a result, the over all pacing is leisurely, but compelling with action that spirals downhill quickly for the last third of the book.
But one of the things I appreciate most about this novel, was that all of the details brought up in the more leisurely told, detail oriented parts at the beginning of the novel all come into play in its denouement. Seriously, every detail becomes important. This is why I feel it deserves all the awards and recognition it is receiving. Erdrich has managed to write a detailed novel, in which you are richly rewarded for paying attention throughout. It reminded me of the writing of Kate Atkinson in this way. As I said in this review of Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog:
Kate Atkinson is one of my personal sure bet authors. No matter what she writes, I know I will enjoy it. What I love about her is that she writes complex, layered stories, but always manages to bring every last thread back together in a smart, interesting, and satisfactory way. I can sit back and relax when I read an Atkinson book because I trust that she will lead me in the right direction.This statement holds true here with Round House too. I would not say the two books are readalikes per se, but if you appreciate writers who have layered, complex stories in which all the threads are brought around in the end, then yes, they are.
Back to Erdrich's novel. The Round House is also filled with symbolism, but it's not the "goes over your head" type. For example, at the novel's open, Joe is removing invasive roots from the foundation of his home. Not only does this scene open the book but it comes back to Joe's memory a few times throughout the story. It is clear that we (Joe and the reader) are supposed to see that this is a symbol for the uprooting of his innocence and the beginning of his adult life, as well as a harbinger of the intrusion into the foundation of his family and community that is to come. But you get it without being hit over the head. All the symbolism is calmly, clearly, and elegantly woven into the story, and since Joe is telling the story in a wistful, looking back over it all tone, he is working out the symbolism himself throughout the story with you as he looks back on that fateful summer.
And, to top all of this amazingness (not a word, I know) off, the ending is worth the ride. It is not an ending without tears, but it is not devastating. It is mournful and haunting. It is as I said above, beautifully heart wrenching, just like the book itself. Too many books these days are great until the ending. When I find books that are appropriately and carefully concluded, I like to celebrate them and their creator.
Finally, a note on the audio. The audiobook is narrated by Native American actor Gary Farmer. I cannot stress enough how much his narration enhanced the book. First, as a Native American, he understands the cadence of Erdrich's writing and of the narrator's storytelling technique. He moves slower than I would have reading the print, but that is a good thing here. He is recounting this pivotal summer in Joe (and the tribe's) life in a way that honors the storytelling traditions of the tribe but also reflects the urgency of the tale we are reading. This added a level of authenticity to the story, and gave me a better overall immersion into the setting and frame than I would have gotten reading the story in my head, using my White, East-Coast world-view. Even being a Midwest transplant, it is Chicago I moved to, I have no concept of the open stretch of barren lands that is North Dakota. The spare, methodical narration, forced me to try to place myself in the story. I greatly appreciated that. Finally, this is a gripping and heart-wrenching first person narration, told by a grown man of the summer that changed his life. Having that man tell me the story (yes, I know it is a reader, but it felt like Joe was telling me it), in my ear was very powerful and emotional.
I am very glad I read this novel. It deserves all of the accolades it has received. More importantly, it is also an example of an accessible award winner. You can confidently give this book to a wide range of readers.
Three Words That Describe This Book: coming-of age, engrossing, beautifully heart-wrenching
Readalikes: Canada by Richard Ford is a great readalike here. Interestingly, as soon as I finished the book last month, I jotted down this readalike option, and then ironically, both were named as finalists for the Carnegie Medal yesterday. The books have such a similar feel that I would also say my suggestions of Brady Udall and Leif Enger in my review of Canada also hold true for The Round House. Click through for details.
I also highly suggest Ivan Doig. His novels of Western Montana have a similar feel. I wrote the Novelist author description for Doig. You can go to NoveList for the full statement, but here is the part that rings most true for The Round House in particular:
"A typical Doig Western follows a family as they attempt to settle, live, and prosper in an unforgiving environment. Readers enjoy his lyrical prose, deliberate pacing, and vivid scenery. Doig's books are ultimately hopeful, paying homage to his forebearers. Start with: The Whistling Season."The above suggestions are all non-Native American readalikes, but some readers are drawn to Erdrich because of the Native American frame.
For those who want both Native American and mystery try the late Tony Hillerman or C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels both of which are mysteries set in Navajoland. They deal with issues of Native American life and the justice system on the reservation.
Sherman Alexie is often paired with Erdrich. Both are the most acclaimed Native American novelists of this era. While Erdrich is mostly concerned with the Ojibwe of North Dakota (in past and present), Alexie's focus is on the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe of the Pacific Northwest today. Alexie's work is grittier and more concerned with the assimilation issues facing a tribe in a more populated, urban area, but if your readers want more award winning, Native American fiction after reading Erdrich, Alexie is your best bet. My suggestion as a starting point is his breakout short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It gives an introduction to his style and tone.
Here is a longer list of books by and/or about Native American from Goodreads.
Finally, that student from last Fall who finally convinced me to try Erdrich wrote this great annotation of another Erdrich title, complete with a few more readalike options.