Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2016

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich #BookReview

the-round-houseI was not expecting to feel like this, but I felt a deep sense of unease when I turned the last page of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.  (2012)

Let me say at the start that it is a very fine book.  Louise Erdrich, a Native American author of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, is, Wikipedia tells meacclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance.  I can see why. The book is a superbly crafted coming-of-age story, with a compelling plot and fine characterisation, especially of the teenage boys with their wisecracking humour.  And if a book works so well that it bothers me to the extent that this one does, then it’s a very powerful book indeed.

Let me cut to the chase:  As she makes plain in the Afterword, Erdrich is on a mission with this book, a mission to make people aware that jurisdictional issues to do with native title on reservations mean that perpetrators of violent crime, especially rape against women, go unpunished.  However, implicit in the storyline is a belief that justice requires capital punishment, a barbarity which places the United States out of step with Western values and conflicts with a strongly held value of mine.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The crime is appalling.  Joe’s mother Geraldine is abducted, brutally assaulted, and raped, and when by chance she was able to escape she reeked of gasoline because her rapist was going to burn her alive.  The crime is clearly race-related and it was deliberately committed on the reservation so that he could not be prosecuted.  She knows who he is; he is clearly identifiable.

Joe’s father is a tribal judge, but he fails to bring the prosecution.  The rapist goes free, gloating.  Joe’s thirteen-year-old sense of justice is outraged, and he determines to get justice for his mother.  Which means, to him, and probably to millions of Americans who would see nothing wrong with this book, that the rapist must be killed.  If the crime had taken place outside the reservation – if Geraldine had lied, and said it did – then he would have been executed.  The logic is faultless; that is what justice means in the US.

But not here in Australia.  Nor in any other Western nation.  No matter the crime, we do not ever impose the death penalty.  And after the judicial murder  of Australian drug smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in Indonesia last year, it is clear that it is no good trying to advocate for the lives of individual Australians when we stay silent about capital punishment in America, our ally and a long-standing friend of Australia.  There is no better advocate for the position we hold in Australia than Tanya Plibersek MP,  in a powerful speech to parliament that showed moral clarity even when – as it is for her – the issue is personal.

Tanya Pliberek MP 12 Feb 2015, source ParlView

A sombre note to end the year.  But 2016 has not been a good year for the world.  We could, if we could begin to influence our friend and ally in this matter, perhaps make 2017 a better one, despite the odds, and despite a novel which is clearly on the wrong side in this matter.

Author: Louise Erdrich
Title: The Round House
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2012
ISBN: 9780062065254
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. Thought provoking with no escape, what a way to end the year alright, here’s hoping for the seeds of good to be sown quietly in 2017 alongside the loud other, we seem to only ever hear.

  2. I read the book several years ago and remember only bits. Yes, Erdrich was pointing out the incredible injustice of Native legal issues. I don’t think it was an anti-death penalty novel. That was a given for the purposes of the book. imo, it’s far from being her best book but the issues are real. (The death penalty is not allowed in either North Dakota or Minnesota.)

    Many books are published here each year in which the death penalty is a given and I’ve become inured to that part of the books. Some are legal thrillers in which the attorneys are trying to get their innocent client declared not guilty. Others are police procedurals where the perpetrator will get the death penalty if he is caught and the story is in the chase. There are very few (if any) in which the perpetrator is guilty but the law is wrong. John Grisham comes closest – The Confession is like that, but again, the accused is really not guilty.

    California just had two propositions about the death penalty on the ballot – one would have eliminated it and the other would speed it up. The winner was to speed it up, but the courts are having a hard time with that as being unconstitutional. (About half the states have the death penalty and the other half no.)

    Erdrich’s best books are Love Medicine and that whole trilogy (or more). I’m getting ready to read Larose – about a man (a Native tribal man) who accidentally kills his neighbor’s son. So his own son goes to live with the family of the victim to replace the one they lost. – I’m looking forward to it but I keep having something else to read first. (sad)

    • It’s odd, really, we share so many values with America, and we think alike about so many things, but on an issue like this the gulf is a mile wide. Still, I would like to read something else, I’ll look out for Love Medicine at the library, thanks for the recommendation:)

  3. Sounds interesting… but did you get the impression that the author was editorialising or was it simply her characters viewpoints you had trouble with?

    BTW, for a brilliant book about the death penalty, have you ever read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song? I read it when I went through a phase of reading “new journalism” in 1994/95 and it left a marked impression on me. No one could read that book and come away thinking the death penalty is justified.

    • Well, I got the impression that an eye for an eye was a given, not a matter for debate, and that of course is what made me feel so uncomfortable.
      I’ll see if I can find a copy of The Executioner’s Song… but that’s reminded me of a very short story by Balzac which is about the executioner after the revolution and how he was tortured by what he’d done.

  4. i disagree that this book is promoting capital punishment. Joe did what he did, but the ending makes it clear that he will be haunted by it for the rest of his life. It also suggest that if he had waited, Lark would have been punished by the legal system for the murder of Mayla. I think Erdrich is simply saying that when there is no legitimate justice system for people to rely on, vigilante justice is a natural reaction. I don’t think she is in favor of capital punishment.

    • Hi Debra, I don’t think the book promotes capital punishment either … but I do think it takes execution for granted. That conversation between father and son, when the father, a tribal judge no less, realises what has been done, was an opportunity for the author to interrogate justice in a different way, and it’s an opportunity not taken. The story ends with a man being haunted by what he had done, but not much, because he goes on to marry and be a lawyer of all things, not ever subject to justice for the cold-blooded murder he committed. I get the sense that it’s a case of he did what had to be done because the system didn’t do it for him, and that the remorse he feels is because it shouldn’t have had to be him, it should have been the system that did it, not (IMO crucially) that it shouldn’t have been done at all.

      And that assumption about execution being a legitimate reaction is what we find shocking here. As I understand it, capital punishment had fallen into disuse in the US and was reinstated in the 1970s when the rest of the Western world was abolishing it, and we find that shocking. Incomprehensible. I remember weeping in my bedroom at eight o’clock in the morning when the last man in Victoria (and in Australia) was hung in 1967. I was only a teenager but it seemed to me as if the civilised world had fallen apart. There hadn’t been a hanging since before I was born, and there was a furious nationwide campaign to have the sentence commuted, including massive street demonstrations and petitions from the jury who had never imagined Ryan would actually be executed. Everyone tried so hard to stop it, but the premier was determined and he got his infamous way.

      As you say in your comment below, the death penalty isn’t in all US states, but with respect, that’s not the point, along with China, Iran and Vietnam, the US accounts for most of the executions that take place in the world. (http://www.nodeathpenalty.org/get-the-facts). It would be such a powerful moral force if the death penalty were to be abolished nationwide, but IMO that is only going to happen when books and movies stop normalising vengeance.

      Reading it through my lens, The Round House, crystalises these issues – it would make a fantastic book for lively book group discussion, eh?

      • Lisa: I am opposed to capital punishment, and I completely agree with your horror at its prevalence in the U.S., especially since so many of the people executed are in fact innocent. I just don’t think Erdrich’s book is normalizing execution as a legitimate choice. I think Joe’s actions are presented as the tragic outcome of an adolescent mind. I actually teach this book in my Intro Lit class, along side Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River” which also includes a vigilante murder. It does in deed lead to some good class discussion, which isn’t all that easy to do with college freshmen who are taking the class only because they have to. :-) Thanks for your post!

        • Now that’s a class I’d love to do! (Why do your students ‘have to’?)
          I’m going to see if I can find a copy of Peace Like a River…

          • They have to take it because it is a required general education class. Do you live in Australia or New Zealand? I used to half jokingly say I would move to New Zealand if Trump became president. And now he has. Sigh.

            • I’m an Aussie, living in Melbourne… So your course is like the general one that they have at Columbia, which I read about it Great Books by David Denby. Loved that book, I never finished it, and never will, because every time I pick it up I find something I just must read before I continue, and so it goes on!
              *chuckle* There are a lot of people who came here to Australia because it was as far away from everything as you could get. Sadly, I once met an American who lived in Tasmania because she thought after 9/11 it was the safest place you could be…
              Looking on the bright side… the good thing about bad political leadership is that it energises grassroots activism, which is usually generates the best, most long-lasting change:)

  5. P.S. I second what Becky said. The legal system in the U.S. varies from state to state. There is no death penalty in Minnesota (where I and Erdrich live) or in North Dakota (where the novel takes place).

  6. I do want to read this. As an American, I quite agree with your sentiments on the death penalty. It is barbaric and I truly wish we did not have such a thing. Great review.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
    Follow me on Bloglovin’

    • Hello Rebecca, thank you so much for your comment. Together, we do this work of changing the world for the better… slowly, oh, so slowly… but we give each other heart because we do it together:)

  7. I think we might be schizophrenic over here. In November the great blue state of California voted for Hillary, the elimination of one-use plastic store bags, the legal use of recreational marijuana, stiffer laws on ammunition purchases (very strict gun laws) and … (ta-da) … to speed up the death penalty process. (Meanwhile, North Dakota has very loose gun laws, but no death penalty.)

    • *chuckle* Yes, and isn’t California also leading the way on doing something about climate change?

      • Yes, Jerry Brown is a great governor – climate change was not on the ballot in any way (I don’t think), but there is a fair amount of state action and a lot of research honing the local response. The problem where I live (Central California – near Bakersfield) is that people don’t even believe there is climate change. They don’t believe scientists and they don’t believe the politicians including Trump, but he’ll “do something” so who cares?- gads.

        • Remember *sigh* how we all read Ivan Illych’s Deschooling Society in 1971 and learned to distrust professionals? Everywhere we look now we see the results: scepticism about doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists etc and we have elevated mom-and-dad ‘commonsense’ over anything experts have to offer. The mere fact that people think climate science is something to ‘believe in’ or not, as if science can be equated to faith, is bizarre.

          • I have a friend who is a retired physicist/computer person. He doesn’t believe the climate change scientists – says they’re being paid by the liberal establishment. So he believes the oil company scientists? (sheesh!)

  8. Hello Lisa and fellow readers,
    Everyone’s perspectives on the death penalty was very thought-provoking as it pertains to the subject matter in Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Round House. I haven’t read the novel but based on my previous reading of Erdrich’s novel, Love Medicine, and interviews with her, I think that although Erdrich may explore the complexities and dynamics of the western legal system and Native tribal law, I don’t think that the novel is geared toward providing solutions. Erdrich is a complex writer who uses her fiction to bring awareness to such issues as gender oppression, poverty, sexual assault, violence, substance abuse, land dispossession, and western cultural assimilation.

    • Hello again, thanks for dropping by, and happy reading in 2017!

  9. This book broke my heart, and yet it was beautiful at the same time. Beautifully written, I guess, and Louise Erdrich surely has a deep knowledge about Native Americans. The times that I’ve spent in northern Wisconsin, where some Ojibwe tribes still live, give me a small taste of what she writes about. I’ve wanted to pick up La Rose, but I think I will gather some courage first.

    Blessings in your New Year!

    • Thank you! Happy reading for you too:)


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