The Round House looks back to 1988, to traumatic events in the life of 13-year-old Joe Coutts and his family. Joe has had a comfortable life for a kid living on the reservation. His father is a tribal judge, and his mother is a social worker. They live in a homey, not fancy house, and his mother keeps a beautiful flower and vegetable garden.
Joe is enjoying the summer as any 13-year-old might, sometimes running around with his friends, sometimes helping out at home. One Sunday he is digging out saplings that have worked their way into the foundation of their house. His mother has run out to the office to pick up a file. She is usually very punctual, but he and his father realize she has not returned at her usual time. The two decide to go get her.
They pass her coming home, but it is not until they arrive home that they discover something horrible has happened. Joe’s mother has been raped and brutally beaten. They rush her to the hospital.
When the police come, she will not talk about what happened except for the broadest outlines. She was kidnapped from the old ceremonial Round House and taken somewhere else to be assaulted. She escaped after her attacker doused her with gasoline and went for matches. After she returns from the hospital, she retreats to her room.
Because of complicated laws related to who has jurisdiction over what type of crimes and where they are committed, Joe’s father begins trying to sort out how a prosecution could be pursued when they find the rapist. This task is made more difficult by the insistence of Joe’s mother that she doesn’t know where she was when she was raped. Joe himself starts looking for evidence of who could have committed the crime.
Like most of Erdrich’s novels set on the reservation, this novel is as much about heartbreaking experiences as anything else. Erdrich points out in the Afterword that up to 1/3 of Native American women are raped on the reservation, mostly by men who are not Native American. She says that this number is almost certainly an understatement, because Native American women don’t want to report rape. Many of these incidents cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional problems.
There were a few things that bothered me about this story, particularly that Joe doesn’t connect some money he finds near the scene of the crime with the crime or that he and his friends drink some beer they find even though they think it is connected with the crime and could be a clue. Even at 13 and in 1988, they had to have watched more crime shows than that.
In general, though, this is compelling reading, about the change in Joe’s family, about how fast he is forced to grow up, about the limitations of justice on the reservation.