Sunday, March 17, 2013
Louise Erdrich has been an important American writer for twenty-five years, yet it took most people by surprise when her latest novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award for fiction. Perhaps it's because, while no one doubts her tremendous talent, she has insisted on writing in a distinctly Native American way rather than conforming to the smart, edgy style of her nonindian contemporaries. By Native American way I mean an elliptical nonchronological style based on family, clan, and tribe, instead of the urban/rural setting with linear time flow construct used by most of us. However, in The Round House, (Harper, 2012) Erdrich earns her place in the mainstream by meeting three difficult challenges that defeat most writers .
The narrator of this novel is Joe, a thirteen year old boy who is growing up on a reservation in the Dakotas. How many novels have you read whose children think, act, and speak like adults, at least part of the time? Joe's thoughts, emotions, and behavior are perfectly believable, all the time. I haven't encountered a more real child voice since To Kill A Mockingbird. Both books explore a child's response to injustice, In Mockingbird it's racism, while Round House deals with rape. Both books deal with crimes that society has made complex, but a child sees as the simple atrocity that it is. The choice of a child to tell the story, and the skill Erdrich uses to make that child's voice real accomplish her first task.
The second is to artfully present a political argument without scaring away the reader with her passion. Her focus is the injustice of the American legal system. US law prevents Native American tribes from using their own system of law and courts to prosecute crimes against their people by nonindians off the reservation. Writers who make political points with their work frequently produce heavy handed polemic that drives readers who just want a good story away. Erdrich handles this problem skillfully by making Joe's father a tribal court judge. Antone Coutts, the husband, is ready to kill to avenge the rape of his wife. Antone Coutts, the Indian judge, is perfectly powerless to do much except appeal to white friends in seeking justice. Erdrich simply lays out the jurisdiction problems and leaves Antone standing helpless as his wife's rapist strolls about the reservation, safe behind a wall of white privilege. The character and the story make the political point naturally and without the obvious hand of the author.
Finally, Louise Erdrich tells a story about the effect of rape that goes beyond the victim herself and shows the corrosive result in the lives of those close to her. Both her husband and son are changed irrevocably by the crime. They become different people. People you may not like as much as you did when the book starts. You may not like them, but you understand.
The Round House takes us from particular lives of Native Americans to the universal lives of human beings. That makes her mainstream. And the way she does it makes the author and her work worthy of the National Book Award.