The Roundhouse is a gripping and emotional search for justice

There is no easy coming-of-age story about the aftermath of rape, but Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” seamlessly stitches a story of vengeance and crime to the adolescence of Joe Coutts. 

The story begins with Coutts and his father, Judge Bazil Coutts, pulling sapling trees from the foundation of the house. The trees have been wrapped within the concrete structure and held tightly and safe to grow throughout the winter only to be ripped out in the spring.

In many ways, this parallels the violent departure from childhood that Joe Coutts, the son of Bazil and Geraldine Coutts, experiences in the 336 page novel. 

Joe is 13 when his life is shattered. Twenty-five pages into the novel, Joe holds his mother in his lap, like the protective parent she is supposed to be, on the way to the hospital. Geraldine has been attacked and raped by a man who, from the smell of gasoline on her, obviously intended to kill her. She survives, but is deeply traumatized. 

Geraldine remains in her bed locked in her room shrinking both in body and in spirit while Joe and Bazil fight to find “the man whose act had nearly severed [Joe’s] mother’s spirit form her body.” 

The two must not only try to solve the mystery of who attacked Geraldine, but they must navigate the treacherous judicial system. Bazil, who serves as a judge in the Native American courts and mostly deals with trivial cases about stealing and property lines. Regardless, Bazil and Joe tediously sort through hundreds of court cases searching for potential suspects. 

Joe watches his parents struggle through the crisis of traumatization, but, because he is 13, the novel also chronicles his routine adventures. He rides bikes with his friends, has a crush on his uncle’s girlfriend, eats dozens of peanut butter sandwiches and learns to navigate his newfound sexual desires. 

Sexuality lurks beneath every major plot turn of the novel. Joe and his friends are learning to control their own sexual desires, often lusting over girls or becoming worked up simply talking about sexual topics together. 

A presumably older and wiser Joe narrates the story, which allows for more in-depth and mature observations of how his parents interact and how his own mindset changes over time. Joe struggles to find his identity, searching for it in alcohol, drugs, women and even Catholicism. The juxtaposition of overtly religious and secular actions, like when Joe’s friend Cappy has sex with his girlfriend in the altar room, is another uncomfortable pairing that prepares the reader for the final moral dilemmas Joe will face. 

Though the book is set up as a crime-based story of revenge, the mystery of Geraldine’s attacker is solved with more than 100 pages left in the book. The characters still remain mainly driven by plot and action, but because their actions often revolve around race relations, sexuality, morality, the thought-provoking prose so typical in literary fiction flows naturally from the plot. 

Erdrich awakens moral questions and provides potential answers through Joe’s responses, but it is not until the final showdown between Joe and his adulthood arrives in a package of juvenile vengeance that Erdrich’s manipulation becomes evident. Joe is such a relatable and realistic character that not until the final page is turned does the reader realize not only their acceptance of illegal revenge, but their whole-hearted support of it. 

“The Roundhouse” returns to the fictional reservation of Yoknapatawpha and its surrounding town, creating an examination of the North Dakota Ojibwe Native American community and continues the story she began in her 2008 Pulitzer nominated book “The Plague of Doves.” It is not necessary, however, to have read the first book to pick up “The Round House” as it exists separately and completely without the additional lead in. 

Louise Erdrich already beat out Junot Diaz, Kevin Powers and Dave Eggers to win the prestigious National Book Award for “The Round House” in November of 2012.  

While it is unlikely that she will be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in Monday’s announcement, “The Round House” packs a punch that is sure to be felt for days, weeks and months after the final page is turned and the book returned to a shelf. 

Regardless of whether or not “The Round House” is decorated with another sticker, the book will remain “a sweep of sorrow that [will] persist into our soul forever.”