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Louise Erdrich’s New Novel Is a Gripping Mystery and a Powerful Indictment of the Tribal Justice System

Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Round House (HarperCollins), is a fast-paced mystery that readers will have a hard time putting down until they’ve finished it. In the book, the winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction, she takes readers back to the fictional reservation world she has created in several novels over the years.

In the beginning of this new novel, Erdrich’s 14th, we learn that a mother has been raped. She returns home dazed, beaten and bloody, her clothes soaked in gasoline. The book’s narrator is her 13-year-old son, Joe, who tries to figure out who is responsible for the crime. Once his life meant riding bikes with friends and watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, known by its fans as simply TNG. “Naturally, we all wanted to be Worf,” Joe tells us in the narrative. “We all wanted to be Klingons. Worf’s solution to any problem was to attack.”

Now Joe goes on the attack, finding and sometimes mistakenly destroying evidence, while learning firsthand about the jurisdictional tangle that makes justice elusive on reservations, turns them into crime magnets, and traps good people in horrific situations. The Round House is timely and provides a perspective—fictionalized, but based in fact—on the Congressional debate about including protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act.

One day, Joe asks his father, a tribal judge, how he can stand doing his job day after day under such legal restrictions. His dad explains how important the work is. “Everything we [tribal judges] do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty.”

There are numinous moments throughout the book. One night, a crane flaps by Joe’s window. “That evening it cast the image not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from the slender body. Then the feathers took fire so the creature was consumed by light.”

Erdrich recently agreed to talk to Indian Country Today Media Network about the book, and the honor bestowed upon her in November by the National Book Foundation.

How did you react when you heard that you’d won?

At the awards dinner in New York City, I can remember hearing the words, “The Round House,” then I blanked out. For a while, I jumped around like a child and hugged people. Somehow I got up to the stage. I was too superstitious to have written an acceptance speech, but I did have one phrase I wanted to use—something about the grace and endurance of Native women, because this award is for my mother, my grandmothers, my sisters, aunts and daughters.

Did you do anything special to celebrate?

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After I returned to Minneapolis, my husband and friends gave me a surprise party at my bookstore, Birchbark Books, and I was surprised and very moved. Again, I jumped around, hugging people. I am so glad this was the book that was recognized.

For non-Native people, the injustice and jurisdictional tangles described in The Round House will come as astonishing news. How do Native people—for whom these are daily realities—react?

I have had heartbreaking and inspiring responses. One was a letter from a tribal judge, who wrote that she has worked all her life on issues of sovereignty that result in desperately unfair, unworkable, unlivable outcomes for victims of sexual violence—the women and their families. She said she was astounded to read about this in a novel, and it meant a great deal to her to be understood in that manner. I felt the same way about what she said.

Boys and young men are so vivid and touching in your novels. Do you enjoy creating these characters? How do you discover and express their oft-hidden inner lives?

Thank you. For quite a while, I was accused of writing strong women and pathetic men, so this [question] makes me laugh. I don’t choose my characters; they come to me. Joe started talking to me, telling this story. Of course, I went crazy with frustration for year or so—gathering information, studying, writing throwaway stuff, waiting for Joe to talk more. The secret to writing is to make it look easy. It isn’t. Or maybe the secret for this book was becoming a TNG geek.

As I report articles in Indian country, I occasionally hear Native converts to Christianity refer to traditional spirituality as “devil worship”—just a few weeks ago, in fact. Will indigenous people recover from the long-term assault on their spirituality that you describe in The Round House?

Fundamentalism in any religion misses the point of communicating with the unknowable power that creates and destroys. We small humans have only two great things about us—not our weapons, not our puny rituals, not our awesome ability to emit CO2—but our abilities to think toward wisdom and to express love.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 has been in effect for more than 30 years, and there has been a powerful resurgence of traditional religious life in Indian country. I imagine these beautiful redemptive actions could threaten some people, but I don’t understand how. Native religion will continue, and it will strengthen. It is about the bonds of healing between people, and nobody can stop that now.

We learn in the book that Joe grows up, gets married and becomes a tribal judge, like his dad. How should readers imagine his journey from the sadness and harm experienced in The Round House to that empowered place?

Generations of Native people have done everything possible to heal, and it would be unworthy of them not to acknowledge that this is the main necessity. But as a writer who is bound to the truth, I also write about those who do not heal. Not everyone can. But those like Joe, who heal and come back to tell their stories, heal others.