Commentary Magazine


Take Your Medicine

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 336 pages

The ghost of the Indian haunts the American imagination, writes D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature. The history of contact between America’s original inhabitants and the European descendants who pushed them off their native lands is a record of mutual hatred and unspeakable cruelty on both sides, but now that the Indians are no longer a physical threat, a “minority of whites intellectualize the Red Man and laud him to the skies,” Lawrence writes. “But this minority of whites is mostly a high-brow minority with a big grouch against its own whiteness.”

For almost two centuries, the Indian as he existed in American culture was the creature of this high-brow minority. The 19th-century romantic novelists (James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, Helen Hunt Jackson) compensated for a lack of direct knowledge with sympathetic celebration. They were suc-ceeded by writers who tried to muffle the sounds of their own origins by speaking in Indian voices: Mary Austin, whose play The Arrow-Maker, set among the Paiutes, was brought to Broadway in 1911 by the Shubert brothers; Oliver La Farge, whose novel Laughing Boy, told from a young Navajo’s point of view, took home the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1929; and John G. Neihardt, whose famous Black Elk Speaks (1932) transcribed the monologues of an Ogala Sioux medicine man who had survived both Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Before the Second World War, a few novels were written from a Native American perspective (Mourning Dove’s Co-ge-we-a, John Joseph Mathews’s Sundown, D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded), but they received little attention, and no professor anywhere listed them together on a syllabus. Then, in 1969, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to N. Scott Momaday for his novel House Made of Dawn. Momaday, a Kiowa, was the first Indian to capture an American literary prize. His subject was the poverty and boredom of the postwar reservation, which turned young Indians into “lazy, no-good-for-nothing drunkerts,” and the baffled desire to reclaim the “old ways” of oneness with the unspoiled earth, the “house made of dawn,” the “house made of pollen.” When, five years later, James Welch pub-lished Winter in the Blood—another undaunted novel about reservation life—it was clear that a new kind of writing, about American Indians and by American Indians, had broken through. “I have seen works written about Indians by whites,” Welch explained, “but only an Indian knows who he is.”

The term “Native American literature” was coined soon thereafter. (On the rare occasions it had been used prior to the mid-1970s, the phrase had referred to “our native American literature.”) Several writers emerged over the next few years to meet the rising demand for Native American literature—Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, Paula Gunn Allen—but it found its leading light in Louise Erdrich. Born in June 1954 to two teachers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs—her father is German American, her mother half Ojibwe—Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe of North Dakota. Author of 13 novels, Erdrich remains best known for Love Medicine, her first, which was published in 1984 to critical and popular acclaim.

A family chronicle that spans three decades on a North Dakota reservation, the book might have been dismissed as “another plight-of-the-Indian novel” (in her own phrase), but Erdrich’s spare yet lyrical prose, wry attitude toward sex, and apparently knowledgable use of Indian legend raised it to another sphere. Rights were sold to publishers in seven European countries; excerpts appeared in 10 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly, Ms., and Mother Jones; Jane Fonda’s office called to ask for a copy. Named one of the year’s best books by the New York Times, it was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award—and was the runaway winner, according to newspaper reports. It has never been out of print.

Love Medicine established a pattern. Set on the reservation or in the small prairie towns nearby, Erdrich’s novels typically rely upon multiple narrators and shifting perspectives and recurring characters. They are not held together by a firm narrative line; they are not really novels at all in any ordinary sense of the word, but inter-locking puzzles of interconnected stories, some of them violently realistic, some of them with the fantastical quality of oral legend. Her work reads like a multivolume project, telling the tales of the same families over several generations; her fictional North Dakota is routinely compared (by Erdrich herself, among others) with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. She has even taken to including family trees to aid her readers in sorting out the relations between charac-ters. “Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood,” a character says in A Plague of Doves, her 2008 novel.

In her 13th and most concentrated novel yet, The Round House, Erdrich chops away at the knotty, complicated relationships that lead to rape and two murders, but its deepest ambition is to leave them intact as a faithful representation of American Indian life.

Erdrich’s plot is based on the case of the late William Janklow, two-time Repub-lican governor of South Dakota (here renamed Curtis Yeltow and a Democrat), who was accused of raping his children’s babysitter, a 15-year-old Lakota Sioux named Jacinta Eagle Deer, at gunpoint in 1967 while working as a Legal Services lawyer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Eagle Deer did not file a formal complaint against him for eight years—not until Janklow was running for state attorney general (and only then under pressure from the politically radical American Indian Movement). Six months later, Jancinta Eagle Deer was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Her stepmother, who tried to keep the case alive, was murdered early the next year on the Rosebud reservation. (Janklow heatedly defended his innocence and filed several libel suits against radical accusers such as Peter Matthiesen.)

In The Round House, Erdrich takes this already lurid tale and layers it with subplots about abandon-ment, adoption, jealousy, seduction, revenge, and self-destructiveness. The main characters are a family of professionals living on an Ojibwe Indian reservation. Bazil Coutts is a judge in tribal court. His wife Geraldine is a tribal-enrollment specialist. Their only child, a boy named Joe, is 12 at the time of the book’s events in 1988. Although he tells the story from the perspective of many years later (once he is married to a girl from a family in Love Medicine), Joe is the book’s narrator.

The novel opens with Geraldine’s escape from a rapist who tried to set her ablaze in the tribal round house. A manhunt ensues. Joe and his buddies search for clues at the round house. They spy on a young priest who is under suspicion. Judge Coutts gently interrogates witnesses, consults with an FBI agent on the case. Slowly, the truth comes out—not in the coherent manner of a mystery, though, but as in a modernist novel, where clues could easily be con-fused for poetic images or frag-ments shored against somebody’s ruin. The identity of the rapist becomes obvious, to Erdrich’s reader if not to her narrator, but little happens as a consequence. Ultimately he is arrested, but then he’s quickly released from custody when the police and FBI are unable to determine whether Geraldine was raped on tribal or county land. The jurisdictional uncertainty makes his prosecution impossible.

In an afterword, Erdrich notes that “86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.” But if there is a polemical motive behind The Round House, the book does nothing to generate the reader’s outrage. Judge Coutts speaks in the novel’s tones of deter-mination and patience:

Everything we [tribal judges] do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty. We try to press against the boundaries of what we are allowed, walk a step past the edge. Our records will be scrutinized by Congress one day and decisions on whether to enlarge our jurisdiction will be made. Some day.

The manhunt winds down into Joe’s adventures, his sexual initiation, meals prepared by the old women of the tribe, and family legends (Joe’s great-grandfather talks one whole story in his sleep). You begin to wish for a clear note of political anger to give some point (if not meaning) to the thicket of family and tribal connections Erdrich is at such pains to detail. But the interwoven history of tribe and family across generations and into the future is the point. For Erdrich, this is what Indian life is “really” like.

Erdrich’s novels are sustained by the drone of daily life, the “endless round of habitual activities that changed with the seasons.” One afternoon, for example, Joe bicycles to a slough outside of town. It was shallow all along the edges, and I’d seen a heron there last time I went. All the herons and cranes and other shorebirds were my doodemag, my luck. There was a dock of gray boards, some missing. I lay down on the warm wood and the sun went right into my bones. I saw no herons at first. Then I realized the piece of reedy shore I was staring at had a heron hidden in its pattern. I watched that bird stand. Motionless. Then, quick as genius, it had a small fish, which it carefully snapped down its gullet. The heron went back to standing still, this time on one leg.

Prose like this is supposed to be beautiful, because it allows a novelist to pause and give her style a chance to stretch its legs. And, indeed, this is when Erdrich indulges her preference for description: when she is not getting on with it. Style is not a means of telling a story, but of avoiding it. Like all her novels, The Round House does not dramatize the Indian expe-rience, but reaches for it with aching words.

The critic David Treuer, who is also Ojibwe, has pointed out that Erdrich’s use of the Ojibwe language is clumsy and her portrayal of the tribe’s culture is inaccurate. She “treats Native subjects with strikingly modern, or better, strikingly un-Indian techniques,” he writes. Multiple narrators and shifting perspectives, stories within stories, the love of scenic description—these are the materials of modernist and post-modernist literature, not Indian legend. The function of her Indian settings and Indian references is to secure a claim of authenticity, to deepen the resonance of her novels’ frustrated longing for real Indian life. Although she insists that “being Native American” is an “important aspect” of her work, Louise Erdrich belongs to the company of romantics and literary visitors who interpret the Indian from outside, for a high-brow minority.

About the Author

D.G. Myers, literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, writes our fiction chronicle and is the author of the Literary Commentary blog.




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