Book by book, over the past three decades, Louise Erdrich has built one of the most moving and engrossing collections of novels in American literature. Few writers have done as much to help modern readers consider the position of Native Americans within a national culture that has denigrated, ignored and romanticized them. And yet her books never feel like a whip for right-thinking people to lash themselves with for the ill treatment of Indians. In rich, loosely linked stories about Native and European families in and around the fictional town of Argus, N.D., she explores our conflicted desires to belong and exclude, desires that can motivate any of us — Native or immigrant — toward acts of devotion or cruelty.
Crimes sit at the center of some of Erdrich’s most powerful stories. She’s particularly interested in the trail of blood left through the lives of survivors and ancestors. The previous novel in her North Dakota cycle, the luxuriously complex “Plague of Doves,” which was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, followed the reverberations of a lynching near the Ojibwe reservation in 1911.
This new novel, “The Round House,” uses some of the characters from that earlier work, but it focuses more tightly on the immediate aftereffects of a vicious attack in 1988.
The story opens on a Sunday afternoon when 13-year-old Joe starts to wonder where his mother is. He’s a happy, good-natured kid, beloved by his parents and sensitive to their routines. “Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” Joe says. “Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.”
Soon, they find her sitting in the car in the driveway, “staring blindly ahead.” She’s covered in blood and reeks of gasoline. Joe’s father has to pry her fingers off the steering wheel so they can rush her to the hospital. In the horrible hours that follow, they learn she was beaten and raped near the round house, a structure used for their sacred ceremonies.
But exactly what happened remains as mysterious as who committed the crime. Joe’s mother, a tribal enrollment specialist, won’t name her attacker, and Joe’s father, a tribal judge, knows that the precise location of the assault will leave her case hanging in legal limbo between state and tribal jurisdictions. The question of who is and who isn’t an Indian gradually becomes the heart of the matter as the crime gets caught in the tangled branches of family and retribution, “the gut kick of our history.”
Everything in Erdrich’s stories rises up from the soil of history, but to a 13-year-old boy, history seems irrelevant. He just sees his mother falling into catatonic depression and knows he has to save her. Caught between childhood and adulthood, Joe is old enough to understand what has been done to her but not old enough to be trusted with the details. He begs to be included but senses that information about the assault and his mother’s injuries are “a poison” in his young mind.
And that’s what makes this story so emotionally compelling: Joe is an incredibly endearing narrator, full of urgency and radiant candor. Looking back over a distance of many years, he describes his wrenching passage from innocence to experience. That summer he was determined to cast off the trappings of youth and fulfill his duty to his mother, but he was still a kid, obsessed with watching “Star Trek,” sneaking a beer, ogling women’s breasts. His quest to find the rapist draws him from the games of adolescence into a situation that could very well get him killed.
Erdrich doesn’t interrupt the flow of this tense story often, but she does drop in some legends about an ancestor named Nanapush. Though he is often a comic figure in her fiction, in “The Round House” we hear of Nanapush’s death-defying struggle to save his mother, an act of heroism that inspires Joe to stop being the one cared for and start being the protector.
That passage into greater maturity powerfully alters his relationship with his parents, even as they scold him: “No more hunting down the attacker. No more clue gathering.” In the aftermath of the crime, Joe can’t understand why his father seems so methodical, so academic in his attention to the law, to precedents. And why can’t his mother just snap out of it and “come back to life”? For the first time, he sees that they need him in ways they’re not even aware of.
Beyond the rape and the investigation and any possible retribution, Joe’s sobering evaluation of his relationship with his parents is the most profound drama of the novel — “the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old.” In some ways, I was reminded of Richard Ford’s “Canada,” another remarkable novel this season about a teenage boy who realizes his parents’ limitations.
But “The Round House” is not all wrenching and tragic, and it has a wider tonal range than “Canada.” Despite the horrific crime at the center of the story, Erdrich leavens the mood with some hilarious scenes involving Mooshum, an ancient horndog who never stops bragging about his sexual exploits (past and present). And Joe’s patter with his young friends is full of all the comic bluster and sweet naivete of adolescence.
Authors who write linked novels — even novels as loosely connected as Erdrich’s — pose a challenge for new readers: Do the books stand alone? Must one start at the beginning of the list? Erdrich’s most recent novel, the blistering “Shadow Tag,” was one of my favorites of 2010 and worked entirely on its own, though it wouldn’t give a novice a sense of the author’s luxurious interweaving of myth, legend and history.
With its single narrator and tightly focused plot, “The Round House” is more accessible than some of the earlier books in Erdrich’s North Dakota cycle, and older teens might respond to Joe and his struggles. But it’s no criticism of “The Round House” to warn that it would be enhanced by first reading at least “The Plague of Doves.”
Don’t let that discourage you from starting here, however, if you don’t know Erdrich’s work. Joe is one of her more charming narrators, and the story he tells transforms a sad, isolated crime into a revelation about how maturity alters our relationship with our parents, delivering us into new kinds of love and pain.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. Follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On Oct. 10, Louise Erdrich will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.
THE ROUND HOUSE
By Louise Erdrich
Harper. 321 pp. $27.99