Joe shows how a seemingly isolated crime has many roots. In the process, this young boy will experience a heady jolt of adolescent freedom and a brutal introduction to both the sorrows of grown-up life and the weight of his people’s past … Sexuality seethes underneath every plot twist, offering bliss and violence as equal possibilities. Much of the novel’s suspense comes as Joe and his friends make their own first forays into the mysteries of sex, eager to be initiated into its secrets, even as they search for a man who has committed a terrible sexual crime.
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’ … 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 … 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.
There are very few writers out there who can write singing German butchers, cross-dressing priests, and teenage boys with equal facility … 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 … Joe is an endearing guide and readers will want justice for his mom just as much as he does.
Although its plot suffers from a schematic quality that inhibits Ms. Erdrich’s talent for elliptical storytelling, the novel showcases her extraordinary ability to delineate the ties of love, resentment, need, duty and sympathy that bind families together … it soon becomes clear that Ms. Erdrich wants to use this story to show how a tangle of laws can ‘hinder prosecution of rape cases’ on many reservations … It is Joe’s story that lies at the heart of this book, and Joe’s story that makes this flawed but powerful novel worth reading.
Erdrich's plotting is masterfully paced: the novel, particularly the second half, brims with so many action-packed scenes that the pages fly by. And yet the author also knows just when to slow down, reminding us that despite everything upending Joe's life, he's still just a teenager … One of the most pleasurable aspects of Erdrich's writing is that while her narratives are loose and sprawling, the language is always tight and poetically compressed … There's nothing, not the arresting plot or the shocking ending of The Round House, that resonates as much as the characters. It's impossible to stop thinking about the devastating impact the desire for revenge can have on a young boy.
Rape isn't really the subject of The Round House. Rather, this is the story of a teenage boy whose world and self are pulled apart and reassembled in the course of a year. Unlike Erdrich's other novels, which feature an assortment of narrators or points of view, The Round House is limited by what Joe himself can understand. He has no imaginative access to the visceral nightmare of sexual assault … Meanwhile, the adults around Joe offer him rival ways to respond to his mother's suffering and its perpetrator, who is as one-dimensionally monstrous as the baddie in a paperback thriller.
Erdrich trades her signature use of multiple narrators and interwoven plotlines for a more traditional format in one of her North Dakota novels. Yet she also advances the exploration of her abiding themes, particularly the difference between vengeance and justice. This book stands well on its own while enriching Erdrich's oeuvre … this novel will have you reading at warp speed to see what happens next.
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’ … 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 … The Round House is one of her best — concentrated, suspenseful, and morally profound.
Joe, his parents and a lively cast of friends and relatives do learn more about the crime, and their investigation gives meaning to the complicated task of healing. One of the true accomplishments of the novel, however, is that this meaning is never simple, never easy or satisfying … It works especially well that Joe is only 13 years old. As it is for many adolescents, the certainties of Joe's life (his mother's pain, his father's frustration, some people's cruelty, others' generosity) don't add up to anything that feels whole. Instead learning more actually feels disconcerting, a sense we share with Joe.
Never before has she given us a novel with a single narrative voice so smart, rich and full of surprises as she has in The Round House. It's her latest novel, and, I would argue, her best so far … That long view — and the experience of having become, like his father before him, a tribal judge — gives Joe a clarity of mind and an emotional distance from that tumultuous period of his adolescence, when the harm done to his mother spurred him to commit even greater violence. All of this he describes in a voice that's smooth but never bland, nurtured by years of experience and honed by memory.
The Round House delivers justice and redemption in unlikely ways. No healing comes without great suffering. Acts of violence beget further violence. Calm is shattered by loss. This is painful material to be sure, but in the face of sorrow, Erdrich's characters are defined by quiet determination, courage and resilience. ‘We just kept going’ are the last four words of this haunting story. That's as close to a happy ending as the author is willing to get.
Erdrich interweaves the story of Joe's crusade with his grandfather's memories of surviving a lynching, and tales of the boy who met the buffalo spirit in his struggle to save his mother from the evil wiindigoo spirit. These parallel stories let Erdrich highlight the intersection of traditional and Catholic spiritualities, ideas of sin and retribution and her recurring theme of family … [The Round House] reasserts the primacy of parents' love for their children, and children's fierce desire to protect their parents.
A 13-year-old boy with a good mind and a loving heart is not going to be held back for long, and soon Joe and his best friend, Cappy, are talking revenge and retribution. And at that point, The Round House becomes a thriller, but one with literary, not just whodunit, muscle, as Ms. Erdrich combines psychological insight and crafty plotting to superb effect.