For nearly three decades, Louise Erdrich has been populating her novels with indelible characters from her North Dakota homeland, with its mix of Ojibwe, French-Indian (Metis), and German settlers — people who have intermingled, waged war, and loved mightily for more than a century.
Beginning with “Love Medicine,’’ her 1984 debut novel (winner of a National Book Critics Circle award), she has frequently used multiple narrators to spin tales that span decades. In her new novel, her 14th, she narrows her focus, telling her story through one narrator, from a point in the future, looking back at the events of one summer.
Joe, the 13-year-old narrator of “The Round House,’’ is a complex and likable fellow, self- aware, loving, and respectful of his parents — Geraldine, a beautiful, confident Ojibwe woman, a tribal enrollment specialist who handles complex, often confidential information, and Bazil, a deliberate man who married late in life, a tribal judge who works to maintain sovereignty within the narrow scope of the cases he handles on the North Dakota reservation where the family lives.
Like Erdrich’s 2008 novel “The Plague of Doves,’’ to which this is a sequel of sorts, “The Round House’’ begins with a crime. In the spring of 1988, Joe’s mother is sadistically attacked and left in “a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.” She is unwilling or unable to say what has happened and who did it.
Erdrich’s artistry allows us to slip inside Joe’s skin easily as he is drawn into an adult role overnight, empathizing with his mother’s pain and joining his father in a search for the identity of the man “whose act had nearly severed [his] mother’s spirit from her body.”
Joe is precociously observant. He is attuned to the natural world — prying loose tree seedlings that had attacked their house at the foundation, he marvels at how “each seed had managed to sink the hasp of a root deep and a probing tendril outward.” He is sensitive to human nuance (when his mother doesn’t return in time to fix dinner on the day of the rape, Joe notes, “her absence stopped time”). He also senses a spiritual dimension; as he approaches the ceremonial spot known as the round house, where the violent attack occurred, “a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself.”
While his mother lies in bed in a traumatized state, Joe and his father investigate the crime, going over pertinent cases from the past. Joe also pursues his own clue-gathering with the help of three buddies — Zack, Angus, and Cappy. The four spy on suspects, drink beer, and get into various sorts of mischief over the summer.
Joe and his friends are obsessed with “Star Trek: The Next Generation,’’ and fascinated with the film “Alien.’’ But Joe’s worldview also is shaped by the generations before him and the extended family and community around him. While his mother recovers, he bunks around, first with his Uncle Whitey and his stripper Aunt Sonja, about whom he fantasizes wildly, then with his Aunt Clemence and grandfather Mooshum, who “lives in a timeless fog.” Mooshum talks in his sleep, telling of the tribe’s survival during the first reservation years, and the origins of the round house: “The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart,” the old buffalo woman tells Mooshum’s ancestor Nanapush. The round house, she says, would recreate how the buffalo brought together his people once, how the clans gave laws, and rules that respected the buffalo and forced people to work together.
The question of law and justice is at the heart of “The Round House.’’ Joe’s father insists his mother give testimony three times — to a state trooper, an officer local to the town of Hoopdance, and one from the tribal police — because “it wasn’t clear where the crime had been committed — on state or tribal land — or who had committed it — an Indian or a non-Indian.” These questions would not change the facts, Joe muses, “[b]ut they would inevitably change the way we sought justice.”
Erdrich reveals the mystery of the attack and its roots in the past with spellbinding precision. She parses the legal enigma, including jurisdictional questions, and connects the case in Ojibwe tradition to the legendary wiindigo, which could cast its spirit inside a person, turning him into an animal preying on other humans. In her final urgent pages, the summer’s tragedy comes to a startling resolution, and then, in a plot move I found too abrupt for the rest of the pace of the novel, she pulls the story in a new direction. But that’s my main quibble.
Each new Erdrich novel adds new layers of pathos and comedy, earthiness and spiritual questing, to her priceless multigenerational drama. “The Round House’’ is one of her best — concentrated, suspenseful, and morally profound.
Jane Ciabattari, who has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, NPR.org,The Daily Beast, and others, is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.