The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, Harper, RRP$27.99, 336 pages
On a cold spring afternoon in 1988, Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman, is brutally attacked by a white man in the North Dakota countryside. Her husband, a tribal judge, tries to bring the case to court but is hindered by ambiguities over jurisdiction, and Joe, their 13-year-old son, grows impatient with the delay. Teaming up with his friends, he sets out to find and punish the assailant.
Like many American novels, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, The Round House examines the difficulties in disentangling truth from racial prejudice in a legal context, but Erdrich’s writing is distinctive. She narrates from Joe’s perspective, and deftly evokes his growing awareness of his mother’s distress; that “some warm part of her was gone and might not return”.
Despite its harrowing premise, the book has moments of humour, and Erdrich gives us a sense of the glorious richness of Native American culture as it endures in the face of hatred.