There are very few writers out there who can write singing German butchers, cross-dressing priests, and teenage boys with equal facility.
Over the past 28 years, starting with her National Book Critics Circle winner “Love Medicine,” Louise Erdrich has richly populated her fictional North Dakota reservation with indelible characters like Nanapush, Father Damien, and Shamengwa.
Her new hero's name is a little simpler. In The Round House, Joe is a 13-year-old boy who enjoyed obsessing about “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and hanging out with his friends Zack, Angus, and Cappy.
Then his mother comes home covered in blood and reeking of gasoline. Geraldine Coutts was raped at the old round house, and her attacker tried to set her on fire before she managed to escape.
“During the old days when Indians could not practice their religion – well, actually not such old days: pre-1978 –the round house had been used for ceremonies,” the adult Joe tells readers.
The crime is a vicious one, but the investigation gets stymied by questions of jurisdiction: Geraldine said she can't remember exactly where she was attacked, so it's not clear whether the crime occurred on tribal or state land. Decades of law stripping tribal judges of their authority to try cases also don't help the cause of justice.
Joe is old enough to understand what happened to his mom, and young enough to wonder why she can't get out of bed and take care of him anymore. Furious with his father, an Ojibwe judge, for presiding over cases about stolen washers (the metal disks with the hole in the middle – not even the appliance) while his mother's attacker goes free, Joe and his friends take up the investigation.
The result is so much more painful than anything the Hardy Boys ever encountered: By the end they will crack the case, but one of the boys won't make it to adulthood and another will be forever changed.
“The Round House” is a return to Erdrich's North Dakota cycle after 2011's “Shadow Tag,” which had echoes of Erdrich's own marriage to the late writer Michael Dorris and which I thought was unfairly overlooked when it was time to hand out prizes. There were no such snubs for “Round House," which is a finalist for the National Book Award.
You've heard of paint by number? Erdrich paints word by word. Watching a priest on Sunday, Joe thinks, “His teeth did not show when he talked and his boxy chin remained motionless so that the lips alone moved in his still face and the words seemed to wiggle out.” Another character, a sister of one of Joe's suspects, “reminded me of a pop-eyed porcupine, even down to her fat little long-nailed paws.”
And then there's Joe's granddad, Mooshum, who still has an eye for the ladies and likes his birthday cake frosted with whiskey-laced sugar – a combustible treat combined with the sheer number of candles – and Grandma Ignatia Thunder, who lives to embarrass the boys with her ribald commentary.
“Round House” is more tightly focused and less epic in scope than some of Erdrich's earlier novels. But in addition to Mooshum's antics, the violence is tempered by Joe's and his friends' escapades and the love the extended family has for one another. (For longtime readers, Nanapush makes a guest appearance, courtesy of Mooshum's sleep-talking, that helps set Joe on his course of action.)
Like many of Erdrich's novels, “Round House” has links to her past fiction. Some of the characters, such as Mooshum and Joe's father, also appeared in 2008's “Plague of Doves,” which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and also opened with a crime, a 1911 lynching that has repercussions down to Joe's day. “Plague of Doves” also featured some of Erdrich's most beautiful writing. Readers don't need to read the earlier novel to follow the plot of “Round House” – Joe is an endearing guide and readers will want justice for his mom just as much as he does – but there is added richness for those who have.