About the Book
The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a National Book Award-winning book by one of the most prolific and celebrated Native American writers of our time. It tells the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who wrestles with grief, rage, and helplessness when his mother is brutally attacked. He becomes disillusioned with the power of the law to get justice for his mother when he realizes that injustice and inequity are foundational to the structures of the very institutions we look to for protection. He learns he can only look to himself, his family, and his friends, and Erdrich paints a rich portrait of life on the reservation as his community rallies to support him.
Buy the Book
- PBS News Hour Conversation with Louise Erdrich
- Louise Erdrich On Her Personal Connection To Native Peoples' 'Fight For Survival'
- Johnson v McIntosh Ruling by Justice Marshal
- Expanded analysis of Johnson v. McIntosh by Steven Newcomb
- 1823: Supreme Court rules American Indians do not own land
- A Proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2021
- Social Justice Books American Indians Booklist
Support the Show
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
That was a quote from writer Brandon Sanderson on stories. Reading is one of the best things we can do in our day, so in each episode of the We Should All Be Bookworms Podcast, we build our reading habit by taking a quick look at a page-turning, magnetic, universally appealing book that once you start reading, you won’t want to put down. I’m your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. And today, we’re talking about The Round House by Louise Erdrich.
The Round House is a National Book Award-winning book by one of the most prolific and celebrated Native American writers of our time. It tells the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who wrestles with grief, rage, and helplessness when his mother is brutally attacked. He becomes disillusioned with the power of the law to get justice for his mother when he realizes that injustice and inequity are foundational to the structures of the very institutions we look to for protection. He learns he can only look to himself, his family, and his friends. And Erdrich paints a rich portrait of life on the reservation as his community rallies to support him.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can’t even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
WHY THIS BOOK
NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 11, 2021, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
That was from a White House proclamation issued on October 8.
The movement to abolish Columbus Day started in 14 states and 130 cities. And now, finally, the federal government has responded.
Instead of glorifying a person who enslaved and murdered people and paved the way for the theft of their lands, our nation now honors indigenous communities and will, hopefully, further recognize their desire for sovereignty. I will follow this new tradition today by recommending a book authored by a member of an indigenous community, in this case, The Round House by Louise Erdrich.
The Round House is part detective story, part coming-of-age story, and part fable. It follows a 13-year-old boy named Joe whose mother is raped. And somehow, he and his family must keep going while the rapist is still out there. Joe takes it upon himself to solve the crime and bring his mother's attacker to justice.
This sounds weighty and dreary, right? It doesn't sound like a book you want to dive into in your spare time. But give it a chance. Erdrich's beautiful language enriches the reading experience, and she populates the book with engaging characters.
There's Mooshum. He's an ancient relative who tells magnificent stories in his sleep but has nothing material to say to the white college students who follow him around, hoping to chronicle his stories while he's awake. There's Grandma Ignatia, who revels in watching you squirm as she tells raunchy stories of her sexual escapades from days past and present.
And then there's Joe and his friends. Because we see the story through the eyes of 13-year-old Joe, we don't carry the weight of his mother's tragedy the whole time. Joe's horny and goofy friends offer plenty of healing through swimming and biking and running away from stray dogs and angry Priests. There are scenes where I laughed out loud at their antics as they try to follow clues leading to his mother's attacker but get distracted by girls or by scoring beer or catching a glimpse of the new Alien movie that just came out.
So, although the premise for The Round House, a family recovering from a brutal attack, is heavy, the reading experience is vibrant and rewarding.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author of The Round House is Louise Erdrich . This is her 14th novel, and it's set on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, a place she writes about in many of her stories.
Erdrich's father is German, and her mother is Native American, part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Erdrich is also an enrolled member and citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band, which is a federally recognized tribe of the Ojibwe. Please forgive me if I pronounced any of that wrong.
She has written about 30 books, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children's books. This book, the Round House, won the National Book Award for fiction in 2012. In 2015 she won the Library of Congress Prize for her body of work in American Fiction. And earlier this year, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her latest novel, The Night Watchman. Erdrich is undoubtedly one of the most significant Native American Writers of our time.
She said the inspiration for The Round House was the political background that characterizes the book's central problem — a crime is committed, but because no one knows where the crime happened, prosecution for the crime may be impossible. Did the crime happen on Tribal land, State land, or Federal land? If you don't know that for sure, you don't know who has jurisdiction over the crime, which complicates finding any justice. This is a real issue for Native Americans, and Louise Erdrich says she was haunted by it but didn't want to write a political diatribe, which would come across as a bitter attack. She wanted to write a story that could be felt and understood on a human level.
"So I waited and waited to have some character come to me and speak to me," she said. "And once I'd written into this — when I got to these words, where is your mother? — I knew I had the book."
Now here’s a quick summary of the plot:
Twenty years ago, the world fell apart because of a plant-based fungal virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies who spread the virus when they bite you. But not all zombies are the same, and some children seem to have all of their mental faculties intact despite having an insatiable hunger for flesh. These children are caught, caged, tamed, and taught. They’re isolated at a research base and are given lessons like regular children in school while scientists study them to see if they can find the key to a vaccine. But whether or not they’re human or even alive is debatable, with the consensus being that even though they’re different from the other monsters, they’re still monsters.
10-year-old Melanie is the smartest of the children, and she’s in love with her teacher, Miss Justineau, who is the only person on the research base who can see beyond the virus to the value of the children themselves as living beings with fears and hopes. Melanie’s journey to understanding what she is and her relationship with Miss Justineau is the core of the story. It elevates the book from being simply a zombie-feeding frenzy type thriller to a captivating exploration of what it means to be human.
When the research base is breached and falls into chaos, Melanie and Miss Justineau escape, along with the Base Commander, a newbie soldier, and a mad scientist. They are all thrust into the wild, dangerous territory of the zombies. But, slowly, Melanie starts to realize that the threat to herself and the world’s future emanates not from the zombies but from the few remaining humans around her.
FAVORITE STORY MOMENTS
"He had a list of places he was admitted to practice that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. I was proud of that."
This is what Joe says about his father in the beginning. He's cleaning his father's office because his dad is going to work from home for a while and help his mother recover. And he's doing this job with reverence for what his father does, carefully dusting the frames on the wall, straightening up the books, and filing away stray documents. When he gets home, he helps his dad unload boxes and boxes of files from the car, and he is grateful to be allowed to sit with him and read through the files, looking for something to help find and prosecute his mother's attacker.
But when he starts to read the files, something isn't quite right.
"We began to read. And it was then that I began to understand who my father was, what he did every day, and what had been his life."
"I had imagined that my father decided great questions of the law, that he worked on treaty rights, land restoration, that he looked murderers in the eye…"
"… but as I read on, I was flooded by a slow leak of dismay."
There's this moment that we all have growing up where we realize our parents are not what we thought they were. We see that they're flawed, and they get things wrong. We see that they struggle and that things don't always come as easy to them as we thought. And sometimes we see that what they do for a living isn't as glamorous as we thought it was, or it's not as prestigious as what someone else's parents do, and we might feel ashamed. This is that moment for Joe.
He's reading cases about a guy who is accused of stealing 15 cent supplies from his employer and someone else charged with sneaking gas station hot dogs into the bathroom and eating them all, so he doesn't have to pay. He's disappointed in the common, everyday ordinariness of the matters his father judges for a living, and his spirits sink as he realizes the limitations of what his father can do to help his mother get justice.
Later in the story, this disappointment boils over.
"All you catch are drunks and hot dog thieves," he yells at his father. "You've got zero authority, Dad, one big zero."
And Joe asks him why he even bothers to continue to do this job when the authority he's granted as a Tribal Judge is so limited compared to what a state or federal Judge can do.
"How come you do it?" he says. "How come you stay here?"
And his father illustrates it for him. He pulls out an old, rotting casserole from the fridge that a family member brought over months ago when Joe's mom was first attacked. He dumps the casserole on the table. It stinks, and the noodles have gone black with white fuzz growing on them. His dad then grabs a ton of silverware and starts ever so carefully stacking the knives, spoons, and forks on top of the rotten casserole. Then he steps back and says, "that's Indian law."
He explains that the rotten casserole represents a Supreme Court case called Johnson v. McIntsoh from 1823 where a judge "vested absolute title" to all United States land "in the government and gave Indians nothing more than the right of occupancy." And that one of the worst parts of that law is the language. It describes Native Americans as "savages." It says that if the land is left to them, it would be left as a "useless wilderness." And because the Indian character and religion is so inferior, it is only suitable for the "superior genius of Europe" to claim the land.
I looked up this case and I learned that this decision by a United States Supreme Court justice - Justice Marshall was his name - was based on the “Discovery Doctrine” - a European principle that says newly discovered land belongs to the power that discovered it. It does not belong to the people who have inhabited it for thousands of years.
Johnson v. McIntsoh is foundational to United States property law. All law students are taught this case. And this case is repeatedly cited to justify decisions to this day. Today, some judge is out there deciding a property dispute and is using this decision to uphold their own judgement - this decision that has the words “savages” and inferior character and religion” and “superior genius of Europe” littered throughout.
So this case is the rotten, stinking casserole at the bottom of the silverware stack. Joe's father explains that the first piece of silverware is another case, a better case but not perfect. The piece on top of that is another case, and so on and so on… all balanced precariously on top of each other.
And Joe gets the point. That his father does what he does as a Tribal lawyer to gain ground back from the foundational mess that stole Native American land and that has left them in such a state that they can not even prosecute his mother's attacker because they don't have jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians on their reservation. Because their land isn’t really their own. They don’t have total sovereignty over their land. And they haven’t since 1823. But it's only a matter of time, his dad assures him.
"What I'm doing now is for the future," he says, "even though it may seem small, trivial or boring to you."
That's my favorite story moment because it illustrates how justice doesn't necessarily happen in an instantly gratifying display of fireworks. One day the world is this disappointing way. We see it and yell about it and go marching and protesting. And then, boom, the next day, it's better?
Nope. That's not how it works. Justice is a maddeningly slow process. It involves slight tweaks to the system here and there. It requires some of us to do boring, repetitive work. Justice is the accumulation of small victories that often go unnoticed and unpraised.
Learning this about justice is one of the most disillusioning things about growing up. When we realize that some things in our world are wrong and they're going to stay wrong for a while — I mean, of course, we react like Joe at first and wonder, what's the point? Why keep fighting?
But we learn that we keep going because it's necessary. It's the only thing we can do. The nature of justice is often slow. We need to accept it, and roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
And that's what Joe does. He becomes a lawyer when he grows up. And he continues his father's work.
Now, who attacked Joe's mother? Does Joe ever find out? Is this man brought to justice? To learn that, you'll have to read the book.
The Round House will take the average reader about 7.5 hours to read. That means if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in 15 days, which is about 2 weeks.