Thursday, January 23, 2014

Louise Erdrich: The Round House

A middling work by a revered writer

     Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award for The Round House last year over Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a work that I found to be astonishing in its mix of scrappy realism, pop cultural satire, and keen political observation.  Erdrich has won major awards in the past (National Book Critics Circle Award – the most adventurous
American literary award – for her debut, Love Medicine, in 1984) and nominated for others (Pulitzer Prize – the dreariest and most staid of American literary awards – for The Plague of Doves in 2009).  I really liked Love Medicine because it opened up a door into another culture when I read it in college and The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003) ambitiously melds an epic family saga with an identity mystery, while exploring two ethnic cultures.  

Detail from a painting
of an Ojibwe wigwam by Paul Kane
     That being said, while admiring The Round House for presenting the senseless and unjust difficulty in prosecuting non-Native Americans for raping Native Americans on reservations, I can’t say it’s a book I enjoyed.  The milieu of an Ojibwe Reservation in North Dakota is fascinating as are the characterizations of the parents and other family members of the narrator.  However, the mystery of who committed the rape and the reason for the crime are neither original nor unexpected.  It’s basically the corrupt in high places that instigate the chain reaction of events.  

     The bigger problem for me is the narrator’s tone.  He’s a thirteen year old, who solves the crime and undergoes ‘the summer that changed my life’ trope in some of the most tragic ways imaginable.  Erdrich renders his point of view with empathy, but the constant refrain of his horniness wore thin fast.  Male coming of age stories turn into a drag when the hormones become a primary explanation for their emotional development.

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