Winner of the National Book Award in 2012, among other honors, this novel unfolds at the intersection of tribal law and sovereignty vs. federal and state law, traditional culture vs. dominant (white) culture, justice vs. injustice, women’s equality vs. exploitation, and the spiritual realm vs. the earthly realm. It is largely a coming-of-age story with an element of criminal mystery. The setting is the summer of 1988 in North Dakota on a Chippewa Indian reservation. Joe, the main character/narrator is thirteen and lives with his parents; Bazil, an Indian judge, and Geraldine, an Indian genealogist and record keeper. One day Geraldine is raped by a mystery assailant at a remote Indian spiritual lodge. While Geraldine retreats into a bed ridden, withdrawn state, Bazil seeks the perpetrator to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, Joe pursues his own search with his three buddies. Eventually the rapist is found and released due to legal entanglement and unfair laws governing Indian reservations. Ultimately, a higher form of justice is served and Joe is transformed from child to adult.
The round house, as a symbol, represents traditional Indian culture as was built according to the instructions of a buffalo spirit by Nanapush and Mooshum as told in the story related by Mooshum while sleep-talking. Catholicism, historically, was foisted on the Indians. Traditional Indian religion (practiced at the round house) became illegal (until 1978) and Bibles replaced spirit drums. The abduction and rape which takes place at the round house (there is also a second woman there who is murdered) alludes to the broader cultural rape, genocide, and land theft of the Indians by the whites. Near the end of the story the narrator says, “they built that place to keep their people together and to ask for mercy from the Creator, since justice was so sketchily applied on earth.”
Louise Erdrich, author and Chippewa Indian, has written a complex novel, rich in detail, and exploring many related themes. Although the story is fictional, it is based on several actual cases. Embedded in the tale is a factual account of existing federal, state, and reservation laws which apply to the circumstances told. I found the book moving and awe-inspiring in the author’s ability to bring together so many moving parts in a believable, purposeful way.