Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

When I compiled my favourite books of the year for the Fiction-L discussion list, I realized that I hadn't reviewed some of the books I liked best, including The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

I listened to an e-audio version [Recorded Books; 12.5 hours] and it's a testament to the power of Erdrich's story that I stuck with it, even though I wouldn't recommend this particular recording. It's performed by Gary Farmer, who should have been a good choice, because he is an experienced actor and also a member of the Cayuga Nation, born in Ohswekan, Ontario. He sounds so tired as he speaks, however, that I wonder if his health is poor. There are some places where he muddles words into unintelligibility. There are also segments that have been re-recorded and the voice in these parts is so different that I wasn't sure it was still Farmer. The Round House is entirely told in first person by one Ojibwe character named Joe Coutts, looking back on the year 1988 when he was 13 years old, so it was disconcerting to have these random shifts in tone and clarity throughout.

Now, I'll get to the good stuff, a story deserving of its National Book Award prize. It is a compelling coming-of-age tale set on a reservation in North Dakota. Joe's mother, Geraldine, survived a brutal attack but was too traumatized to speak about it afterwards. Joe is determined to bring the criminal to justice and he gets his young friends to help him investigate. However, even when he and his father, a judge, learn the identity of the attacker, the nightmare continues. The crime could have taken place in any of three different jurisdictions, and cannot be successfully prosecuted without knowing exactly where it happened.

As in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, the traditional tale of the wiindigoo in The Round House offers insights into ways of dealing with evil. There are plenty of memorable characters, including Father Travis, an ex-marine Catholic priest, and Joe's aunt Sonja, a former stripper. The time and place are richly evoked. Food is important to a growing boy like Joe; he describes banana bread and baloney sandwiches and wild berries. I was intrigued by the mention of high bush pembina, which also grows where I'm from. The name for Viburnum trilobum that Erdrich uses is a combination of the two that are familiar to me: either high bush cranberries or else the French Canadian term my mother uses, pembina.

Erdrich educates readers about a serious legal loophole that affects Aboriginal people in the U.S. She writes with warmth and humour and I look forward to reading her earlier novels.

No comments: