XXY Reads: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

XXY Reads: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is a coming-of-age novel that ultimately incorporates the binary of love and discontent in preserving a culture. It is set and based on an unnamed Native American reservation. As tribal courts are unable to prosecute non-Native people, the story highlights the injustice of the loopholes afforded to white people on Native territory. Fundamentally, the novel acts as a social comment on the conflicts between Native Americans and white Americans. But it also delves into the affairs of being human; a messy phenomenon that can translate across cultures.

The novel is narrated by Joe Coutts, the thirteen-year-old son of Geraldine and Antone Bazil. Early in the novel, Geraldine is raped. Changed and traumatised by the violent and intrusive experience, Geraldine becomes reclusive and unwilling to tap into her memory to adequately report the crime. However, this is not necessarily a story about a rape, but rather the culture of rape.


By having the story filtered through Joe’s perspective, we experience a certain amount of innocence and inevitable gaps in the narrative. This is an obvious technique of any first person narration. But similar to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Erdrich does it particularly well. Joe’s experiences as a young teenager – exploring with his friends, learning of his heritage through his Grandpa Mooshum, understanding the spiritual beliefs of Native tribes and, by contrast, the influences of Catholicism – are as important to the narrative as the criminal investigation.

Through Joe’s endless curiosity, and the loss of his mother as he knew her, we see how the act of rape impacts their lives as a family and as a community. Geraldine isolates herself, but by doing so, reveals the reality of what has happened to her as bigger. Rape is never in isolation. Instead, it is the logical conclusion of a history of double standards and power struggles.

The issue of sexuality is likewise cleverly addressed. In a way, we get two stories from Erdrich. One of a horrendous crime and its aftermath; and the other of the first important years of adolescence, including initial sexual curiosity. It is an honest portrayal of the essence of being human. How an act, such as sex, is not good or bad in and of itself. We can only judge our affairs in context.

As important to the investigation of who did this is where it happened; The Round House, the location of the rape attack, acts as a symbol. Like Native American culture itself, it proves vulnerable. Erdrich plays homage to indigenous culture. She gives it the grounding it deserves, and through her fiction, comments on the nonfictional situation of the treatment of Native people – especially women. But she also allows judgment scope to the reader. There is nothing forceful or categorical in her moral commentary. The book’s conclusion is seated in revenge. But like the act of sex, whether that revengeful act is good or bad, necessary or not, inevitable or avoidable, is left to you, the reader. Or at least Erdrich lets you think as much.


Written by Michelle Houlston,

New York Junior Editor

Images from the Family Portraits series by Wendy Red Star

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