The Round House is already appearing on lists of the best books of 2012, and rightly so. This finalist for the National Book Award is definitely one of the best books I've read all year.
If you've previously read books by Louise Erdrich, you know that her writing is superb. In The Round House, Erdrich again satisfies one of Kurt Vonnegut's rules for creative writing: Every sentence in her book either reveals something about a character or advances the action. She does not waste the reader's time. Erdich is in complete control of her art. In The Round House, she uses her talents to tell a story about a 13-year old boy, Joe Coutts, and his family.
Joe and his parents are Ojibwe and live on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Joe's dad, Antone Bazil Coutts, is a tribal judge and his mom, Geraldine, is a tribal enrollment specialist. One summer Sunday in 1988, Geraldine gets a phone call which prompts her to go to her office. While away, she is brutally attacked.
The attack is, of course, shattering to Joe's close and loving family. Bazil Coutts, as a lawyer and judge, knows that if there is to be justice for this crime against Geraldine, complicated issues of legal jurisdiction must be quickly resolved. In the complex world of Indian law, a criminal matter may fall under the purview of tribal, state or federal police and courts. The precise geographic location of a crime will determine which police force investigates and which court will ultimately hear any criminal case brought on the matter. These important determinations are slowed as Geraldine struggles to recover. Joe, wanting to help and be a part of obtaining justice, starts to investigate the crime with the help of his closest friends.
As Joe's investigation moves forward, Erdrich does a masterful job building tension, suspense and foreboding. It is the grown-up Joe who is the narrator of this story, giving an adult's perspective to events experienced by a 13-year old. This technique also puts the plot's pressure points squarely on the events of that summer in 1988 because the adult Joe shares with the reader some information about what transpires in subsequent years, allowing us to fill in parts of the story on our own.
Supporting the central plot about Joe and his parents are terrific secondary characters and stories that add wonderful richness to the book. All these elements together make The Round House a transporting, memorable novel.
It is highly recommended reading.
Note: The 2012 National Book Award will be announced on November 14.
Up-Date: The Round House won the National Book Award prize for fiction.