The Round House picks up some of the characters from Erdrich's 2010 novel Plague of Doves (reviewed here in January), focusing on Judge Bazil Anton Coutts, his wive Geraldine, and their 13-year-old son Joe, who narrates the story (as an adult looking back on the events of spring/summer 1988). On a Sunday afternoon, Geraldine receives an upsetting phone call and goes to her office at the tribal offices to pick up a file; while out, she is brutally attacked and raped. She escapes, but the attack's effects are devastating--for weeks, she is unable to leave her bedroom.
Judge Coutts is working within the system to find his wife's attacker, but he communicates his concerns to his son--because no one is certain where the rape occurred, jurisdiction over the case poses a challenge, one that has kept many Native America victims of crime, especially female victims of white male perpetrators from getting justice. Joe and his friends Cappy, Zack, and Angus set out to solve the crime on their own--and they make a number of discoveries, although they do not know what to make of some of the clues they uncover. Eventually, the perpetrator is identified, and Geraldine emerges from her bedroom, but Bazil's concerns were well-founded, and the rapist is freed, leading to a wrenching series of climactic events that raise the question of what justice means.
In some ways, The Round House is less complex in its structure than other Erdrich works. While it is populated with numerous characters with complicated family relations (when Joe asks how he's related to another teen, he is told they are quarter cousins, close enough to fight for but not to the death), but there is a single narrative voice. While tribal history and law are woven into the story, they emerge through conversation or dreams, allowing the narrative to be told in chronological order. While dreams play a role in the events, magical realism is less in evidence than is sometimes the case with Erdrich. All of these factors make The Round House somewhat easier to read than some other Erdrich titles, but they also make the book less layered and multidimensional. That is not to say the book is simplistic. It features a sympathetic and well-depicted central character in Joe, elements of humor provided by his teenage friends, and an exploration of powerful themes of justice, racism, and family.
I know there's lots of world over and above Highway 5, but when you're driving on it--four boys in one car and it's so peaceful, so empty for mile after mile, when the radio stations cut out and there's just static and the sound of your voices, and wind when you put your arm out to rest it on the hood--it seems you are balanced. Skimming along the rim of the universe.