Instead of my usual publisher summary, I will direct you here for my review of when I read this novel last year. But I would like to again highlight what the National Book Foundation said when they awarded this novel the National Book Award:
"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."As I mentioned in the open, we had a GREAT book discussion, but I was not surprised. As Lit Lovers mentions here, a study last year came out saying the books make us more human. One of the books used in the study was The Round House. You can click here for more info on that.
As you will see below, our discussion focuses on a deep philosophical and moral quandary at the heart of this amazing novel, so as a result, this discussion report had MAJOR SPOILERS. I generally try to avoid those, but I cannot report on our discussion for members who missed it and the other book club leaders who use these reports to assist them as they lead their groups with out these spoilers
So, if you want to know more about the book from me, read my extensive but spoiler free review. Consider yourself warned that SPOILERS will appear below.
Discussions notes start now...so no spoilers people, look away...look away.
- I was quite surprised but our opening tally was 13 liked, 0 disliked, and only 1 so-so. Initial opening comments:
- I wish I was teaching philosophy again so I could use this book with students.
- There are so many questions here about justice.
- I experienced how complex the question of what of you do when there is no system of justice.
- And, she addressed this in a way that didn’t preach to you at all. Amazing.
- The ending was perfect, down to the last line...”We just kept going.” The family is intact, driving in the car, but they are forever changed. All they can do is keep going.
- The reactions to the mother’s rape which opens the book were all over the place. This member has worked with rape victims and said that this is true to life. No one reacts the same way-- no rape victim, no family or friend.
- I enjoyed the complexity of the twin issue. It was subtle but well established and made for an interesting, but not cliche, plot twists.
- Question: This book is filled with characters, before we move into Joe, our narrator in more detail do you want to talk about any you loved specifically?
- One of the things that surprised me here was that I liked all of the characters--despicable to likable I enjoyed reading them all. She is excellent at crafting complex and interesting characters.
- This use of characters made the story feel so real.
- I loved Cappy [murmurs of shared opinion]. He was such a friend. He was there for Joe in whatever Joe needed.
- I also enjoyed the character of Father Travis [he came up again later too].
- The characters highlight the overall theme here which is a coming of age. The combined coming of age/justice issues were clearly reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. Someone else chimed in, “ Yes, and Stand by Me too.” Yet another person said, and To Kill a Mockingbird, especially the scenes where Joe and his Dad are looking through laws and trying to figure out the whole tribal law vs state law vs federal law convergence issues.
- Both car trip scenes highlighted the characters and coming of age themes well.
- We talked about the opening scene with Joe recalling how that summer began with him pulling out the seedlings whose roots were threatening their home. I talked about that scene at length in my review last year too. Their additions to the symbolism here:
- Their core was being attacked that summer: their family core, Joe’s moral core, the tribes legal core, etc... The seedlings were the foreshadowing of what was to come. They needed to be eradicated to keep the core intact.
- The core of everything they knew was under the microscope.
- I loved the idea that these seeds settled into the ground unnoticed months before, and now were sprouting and threatening. It made me think of the seeds of our villain. We get the stories from his twin sister of him back to the womb. She argued that this may have been the start of his evil.
- Question: Does the Native American legal system help those on the reservation?
- At that time, 1988, no. Erdrich mentions in her notes that it has changed since then. But in 1988, I was bothered by the fact that any “white” person could commit a crime on the reservation and NOT be prosecuted.
- Joe must think it was okay though because he became a tribal judge. The irony though is that he had to murder to get justice but then he dedicated his life to the legal system.
- At one point in the story, Joe’s Dad says it is okay to kill someone who is evil in the eyes of tribal rules, morals and laws.
- But, a participant mentioned the BIG PROBLEM with this. In Pakistan/Afghanistan their tribal laws says you can kill your daughter if she marries the wrong person. Their federal laws say it is illegal, but tribal law trumps it. We do not agree with this law so we say it is evil and wrong, but to them it is just and right. In this Erdrich example, we happen to agree with Joe and his Dad, so we say it is okay. This is troubling. We discussed the moral quandary here for a bit.
- As I was reading, I knew Joe was going to go through with murdering the man who raped his mom, and it made me slow down. I almost stopped reading because I didn’t want to see Joe commit murder. I was literally telling him, “Don’t do it Joe!”
- Question: So now is the time to discuss Joe and his taking of the law into his own hands. We spent close to an hour on this.
- Joe plans the murder of his mother’s rapist and takes the first wounding shot. Even though it is Cappy who fires the fatal shot, Joe is the only one standing at the end of the novel. He never turns himself in. We can assume this because he became a judge. I don’t think he should have killed for justice. I think he deserves to be punished.
- I think he should have killed him [I thanked this participant for being so honest with the group]. I feel bad saying it, but I am glad Lyndon is dead and that Joe was not punished for it.
- The rapist was an “insanely horrible” person. We all loved this term. We then talked at length about how Erdrich made Lyndon more and more horrible. He really was despicable. This makes it easier for us to reconcile the paradox that Joe is a murderer but we love him and don’t want him to get caught.
- It is troubling when you think about it. We all love Joe and care for him. We all want to protect him. What brilliance by Erdrich to get those feelings out of us. Cappy dies, but he almost has to since he is the one who pulled the trigger on the fatal bullet. But Cappy didn’t plan anything; he was just a faithful friend.
- This is just the perfect ethical dilemma Erdrich has set up in novel form.
- I believe “Thou Shall Not Kill” yet I’m okay with this novel.
- Joe is not only NOT punished, he becomes the tribal judge as an adult. He becomes the upholder of the law. Is that penance itself? It’s ironic at the least.
- Joe was driven to murder after his Dad had the heart attack. By that time Joe knew they couldn’t catch Lyndon with the law, but Joe knew if he didn’t do something this guy would end up killing them all.
- When Father Travis talks about the different types of evil, I thought that meant Joe was going to decide NOT to kill Lyndon.
- In general I found the juxtaposition of the tribal and Church interesting.
- Money and politics end up playing a big part in the story. The moral/philosophical juxtaposition are mucked up by those. No one is completely right or totally wrong-- all sides (good and evil) are compromised by money and politics.
- If you knew your child killed someone, how would that be?
- But if they had to see him every day and know he did it, how could I live with myself?
- But how can everyone in the tribe look at Joe and know he killed?
- Leader’s Note: I loved that these questions were flying back and forth from the group members themselves.
- Question: As I began to try to wrap things up, I asked if people thought Joe’s actions were justice or vengeance?
- This book made me think of the Samurai who only kill for justice, but if they are emotionally attached to a victim, they are not supposed to kill. So even if a just killing, Joe is too connected to the crime.
- I think if it was justice, he would have confessed. So it is vengeance because he is remorseful.
- I think the complexity of this question is there to illustrate how teens have more complexity than we give them credit for.
- Question: What would have happened if Joe did not kill him?
- I hope the tribe would have found a way to take justice into their own hands as a group.
- We are uncomfortable with admitting that sometimes evil succeeds-- this statement made us all stop and think for a moment. First moment of quiet in 80 minutes.
- I don’t think his mother would have recovered mentally if her attacker was still alive.
- Also, we saw that Lyndon was incapable of remorse throughout his life, so he would have kept pestering them and holding power over them.
- Words to describe this book:
- beautifully heart wrenching
- morally complex
- love [family and tribal]
- respect for Native Americans
- mother-son bond
Readalikes: I have extensive readalikes here. But to those I would add a few more I found on NoveList:
- Thirteen Moon by Charles Fraizer: both are literary, coming of age stories with an adult narration recalling back to childhood and feature Native Americans
- Perfect by Rachel Joyce: "These haunting literary novels feature young men whose lives are uprooted when dramatic, life changing events force them abruptly into adulthood....Both are surprisingly uplifting.”
Also, those of your who skimmed may have missed the readalikes that came up in the discussion as outline in the first Question bullet point.