Herstory at its fucking finest.
We’re thrilled to betroth to you the latest offering from our bookwench, Miss Dolly Delightly.
Here’s a harrowing statistic: one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime; eighty-six per cent of the time the perpetrator will be white. Here’s an even more harrowing fact: the figure is actually higher than that which is registered because more often than not Native American women will not report rape. This is due to a number of reasons some of which – in one way or another – revolve around ”the tangle of laws” that hinder prosecutions, especially if the culprit is white. Louise Erdrich’s latest book, The Roundhouse, puts this tragic reality at the epicentre of a teenage boy’s life when his mother is sexually assaulted and brutally beaten. The novel is set in 1988 on a North Dakota reservation, where the attack takes place on an uncertain land boundary of tribal and state jurisdictions rendering a criminal trial impossible. This legal loophole still exists today –partially accounting for the shockingly high statistics – and yet the US Congress is no closer to passing new legislation granting tribal courts the power to prosecute non Natives suspected of sexually assaulting Native women.
Erdrich places this judicial bias under scrutiny in The Roundhouse, underlining its effects on a single family unit as well as the whole community. Joe Coutts recalls the story some years later, remembering how his mother’s ordeal changed a myriad of lives. When the 13 year-old boy realises that the man accused of the crime cannot be charged, he goes in pursuit of his own justice. In the course of the book, Joe is stripped of his adolescence and thrown into the harsh realities of grown-up life. He learns about the legal prejudices against Native American people, about his spiritual and cultural history, about love, pain and the duties and responsibilities that come with adulthood. Erdrich writes with great finesse and ingenuity of the thoughts and feelings running through the adolescent psyche, of Joe’s unbridled anger, his anxieties, his inner demons, his fleeting innocence, his lust for his uncle’s girlfriend, his boyhood friendships and his inability to fully fathom the weight of his mother’s trauma.
Joe’s understanding is restricted by his own fears and sense of destabilisation, which eventually turns into an all-consuming quest for retribution. In writing about Joe’s changing feelings toward Geraldine Erdrich masterfully combines sympathy and resentment, love and anger, driven by his desperation to see things go back to how they were before the attack. “With all my being, I wanted to go back to before all this had happened,” Joe tells us, “I wanted to enter our good-smelling kitchen again, sit down at my mother’s table before she’d struck me and before my father had forgotten my existence. I wanted to hear my mother laugh until she snorted. I wanted to move back through time and stop her from returning to her office that Sunday for those files. I kept thinking how easily I could have gotten in the car with her that afternoon. How I could have offered to do that errand. I had entered that furrow of remorse – planted with the seeds of resentment – peculiar to young men.” Albeit the story is told exclusively from Joe’s perspective, we get to learn of the devastating effects of the attack on the whole community. It is here that Erdrich is at her most political, highlighting how rape and its ramifications affect the victims, their families, friends, neighbours and acquaintances.
Erdrich’s decision to write about this very sensitive subject through the eyes of a teenage boy was a daring one, but one she turns into the book’s biggest strength. Joe’s narration is gripping, powerful and consummately crafted, moving with effortless fluency between heart-wrenching and funny, naïve, impassioned and profane. But perhaps the most powerful moments in the book are those when Joe realises that his mother will never be the same again. “I was beginning to notice that she was someone different from the before-mother,” he says deliberating the matter, “The one I thought of as my real mother. I had believed that my real mother would emerge at some point. I would get my before-mom back. But now it entered my head that this might not happen. The damned carcass had stolen from her. Some warm part of her was gone and might not return.” This is what drives Joe, this sense of irreversible loss. And when his investigation leads him to the perpetrator he takes matters into his own hands, impelled by his fledgling masculinity and his ancestral belief in wiindigoo – a miraculous transformation of man to animal, endowed with the ability to perceive “fellow humans as prey meat”.
The Roundhouse is a remarkably powerful book, steeped in Native-American tradition and its complex cultural history. Erdrich’s exceptional storytelling is rich in emotional tension, suspense, folklore and psychoanalytical particulars. But the most impressive of all is her ability to tell an adolescent’s story while simultaneously exposing major flaws in the establishment’s attitudes to sexual assault and the laws that continue to permit them. This is a testament to Erdrich as a courageously enterprising writer who continues to explore very difficult themes in new and inspirited ways. Some of the characters in The Roundhouse have appeared in Erdrich’s other works and will be familiar to regular readers, others stand on their own. What is different about this book, however, is the singularity of the narrative voice. Elsewhere Erdrich often tells the story through numerous people, permitting it to unfold from multiple perspectives. Here Joe is our only guide through the devastating string of events that robbed him of his childhood and made him the man he is today. This gives the book much of its emotional clout and resonance, which is delicately balanced with an important message about injustice, violence and the failure of some governments to protect those most in need of it.
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback: 352 pages