Joe's mother is violently raped in a sacred place. On his North Dakota reservation, the Round House was where the Ojibwe practised their traditional religion in secret, hiding their eagle feathers and birchbark scrolls from the Catholic priests who had converted them. But the hexagonal log cabin is set in land belonging to both the tribe and the state.
Without knowing exactly where the attack took place, it is impossible to determine who should try the rapist and so he goes free. The novel is set in 1988, but Erdrich assures us that this extraordinary legal quagmire still exists on many reservations. And the rape statistics for Native American women remain shocking – one in three women will be raped in their lifetime and most of the rapists are non-Natives.
But The Round House, a National Book Award winner, is not a polemical novel. It is in the main Joe's compelling coming-of-age story. When we first meet him, he is pulling up seedlings of small trees which have grown into the foundation of his home. This defining scene tells us much about Joe's tenacity, but also points to the undermining of his life. The rape of his mother and her retreat from her husband and son, and the realisation that his tribal judge father is helpless before absurd laws, speed his growing up. He will lose his innocence when he learns not only the identity of the rapist but the reasons for the attack, and decides that only he can avenge his mother.
Yet the opening image of the seedlings is one of renewal as well as destruction. Towards the end, Erdrich seems bound for an upbeat – even sentimental – ending. But she's a tough enough writer to draw back and give the novel the mournful resolution it needs.
The Round House is strongest on the world of 13-year-old Joe and his teenage friends – their glorious freedom to roam the woods, to experiment with drink, fantasise about girls, and yet still be comfortable dropping into their extended families for meals of hamburger soup and frybread, and spicy gossip. Erdrich writes with affection and humour about their vibrant community with its summer pow-wow and wonderful characters – the grandfather who narrates tribal myths in his sleep, the raunchy grandmother who can't stop insulting him. Yet she never lets us entirely forget the exploitation and poverty of a community that lost so much so long ago – the hunting grounds, the buffalo, the complete sovereignty over nature.
She is a gifted storyteller who brings all these characters and tales together with sureness and grace. The writing can be lyrical, especially when she describes the spirits who warn and guide Joe. In one of the most moving tales, Linda Wishkob, the deformed twin whose white mother wanted her killed at birth, is saved and adopted by a Chippewa family. With its echoes of myths about unwanted babies left to die in the wild, her life-story is at the heart of a novel which looks very hard at the relationship between Native and non- native Americans; at all who oppress and destroy those who are different.