Book Club Review for June: The Round House

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

blog and review by Cindy Bushey


Well, Zion’s readers wrapped up another enjoyable season of reading in fine fashion with an indoor picnic thanks to capricious weather.  Laughter, good company, conversation, and delicious food were the order of the evening and many thanks go to Ron and Patricia, our gracious hosts.  A great time was had by all, and the highlights of the evening were, as one reader remarked, chicken wings and cake even though we met to discuss our latest read!

If that seems to hint that “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich fell short of the highlight mark, how perceptive!  Ms. Erdrich has an impressive literary pedigree having received numerous awards for her work.  She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009, and received the National Book Award for Fiction for “The Round House” in November of 2012.  All of which seemed to indicate this selection would be a great way to end our season.

Indeed, the story line of a young Native American boy forced out of childhood by the brutal attack and rape of his mother promised a pithy story for Zion’s Readers to explore.  Ms. Erdrich draws many of her stories from the statistics concerning Native Americans, fleshing them out and drawing her readers into her characters’ trials and emotions.  Definitely, Zion’s Readers felt great empathy for the shock Joe and his family endured, the pain they absorbed, and the anger at the difficulty of bringing the rapist to justice.  We watched Joe experience a turning point in his relationship with his father, a tribal judge with a law degree whose dedication to law and his people demanded that he walk the fine line of justice, revenge, and righting a wrong in every run-of-the-mill case that came his way.

We met Joe’s friends and watched their pranks, listened to them interact with myriad relatives and learn to appreciate the wisdom of an elderly grandfather, the earthy sexuality of aunts, the not-so-subtle racial divisions present in the 1980’s on a mid-west reservation.

We ached with Joe at the agonies endured by his mother and the subsequent changes in her behavior and, therefore, changes in his family.  And we rejoiced with him as his mother’s innate strength began to lift her from the morass of depression and fear.

So why in the world did we not vote this book an excellent read?  With so much going for it, why was it a disappointment to us when other reviewers lauded its plot and characters, even comparing it to “To Kill a Mockingbird” in its scope and story line?

Well, since Zion’s readers never take themselves too seriously, one suggested maybe we just are not an enlightened group as we are obviously missing something here!  Be that as it may, we looked for other more compelling reasons.  One reader thought the entire story could have been condensed into a short version suitable for inclusion in The Reader’s Digest.  Others felt it was populated with too many characters appearing for brief times and then dropped when their story line just started to intrigue us.

Many readers questioned the author’s decision to not use quotation marks as it was difficult to understand when a character was speaking aloud as opposed to merely thinking.  However, another reader felt this was a literary device chosen by the author to eventually draw the readers into the characters’ minds, becoming an integral part of the story.  This theory produced some quizzical looks!

Strangely enough, all Zion’s readers enjoyed Ms. Erdrich’s descriptions of reservation life and Native American beliefs – we felt she very effectively painted vignettes throughout the book often portraying the harsh conditions endured by her characters without ever calling them poor or poverty-stricken.  Some of those characters were recognizable archetypes – Mooshum, the elderly grandfather passing down cultural wisdom; Sonja, every 13-year old boy’s fantasy vividly alive; adolescents on the cusp of manhood, unwilling to abandon a fascination with Star Wars, exploring the temptation of beer, cigarettes, and young love.

Yet, most of our readers found this book hard to read, and many actually put it down for a while and came back to it.  We agreed it was difficult to keep the family relationships of the various characters straight which also added to our difficulties.  Although Ms. Erdrich wove many statistics into the fabric of the story, their very existence was a disturbing distraction as was perhaps her intention.  We felt the justice versus injustice theme could have had more development and, finally, objected to the ending with many readers feeling the author just suddenly stopped writing.  One of our readers summed up our discussion in these words:  good writing but not a good story line.

Our final vote had one reader give it one thumb up, three remain neutral, and five give it one thumb down.  Please do not let this vote deter any reader of this column from perusing “The Round House” over the summer hiatus – Zion’s readers would be greatly interested in any comments from other readers who might enlighten our group as to what we missed!  We will gather in September to discuss “Out of a Far Country” by Christopher Yuan and would welcome more readers for monthly meetings punctuated with laughter and discussion.  Have a safe, happy summer filled with oodles of reading.