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The Round House by Louise Erdrich: Analysis

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In her novel The Round House, Louise Erdrich makes the interesting choice of taking on serious issues of violence against women through the perspective of a 13-year-old boy—Joe. Because the center of the drama is in actuality focused on Joe’s mother (Geraldine) and the author herself is a woman, it is natural to wonder why she might have made such a choice of narrator. Although there are some practical reasons to choose a male protagonist over a female one (namely, that a book with a female protagonist risks being branded a “girl book” – which is a different problem for a different essay), Erdrich’s choice of Joe as the individual who guides us through the story seems like a very conscious one. Joe’s positionality as a young, indigenous male gives him a distinctive and useful view of his world, and Erdrich uses these traits both to draw readers into the world of the text as well as to further several key themes such as the pervasive nature of violence, the complexity of Indian law, and the importance of confronting those two issues.

There are some unique traits of a young adult mind that can make communicating certain themes much more effective and powerful. Because of their age and social limitations, the scope of a young adult’s world will almost always be narrower than that of an adult. As young people, the world is usually a fairly small place, and to beginning-of-the-novel Joe, the reservation and his family encompass his entire world. Due to this more limited scope, readers can more fully see the just how devastating the crime against Geraldine was to Joe and the space he occupies. It is the feeling that his world has been totally and irreparably distorted world that ultimately causes him to feel as though he has no choice but to kill Landon Lark. To his young mind, it was the only way he could right all that had become wrong in his universe. Joe sums this up towards the end of the novel by reminiscing: “…pulling trees that day, just months ago, I was in heaven. Unaware. I had known nothing even as the evil was occurring, I hadn’t been touched yet.” In addition to viewing trauma through young eyes, readers are exposed to issues involving Indian law and reservation life though a young perspective; this is useful because it provides natural situations in which to educate readers on legal matters, since they are just as new to Joe as they presumably are to most readers. The best example of this education is of course the scene in which Joe’s father attempts to explain the complexities of Indian law using the metaphor of a moldy casserole. Because Joe’s world is one that most readers are unfamiliar with, and the secondhand trauma he’s experiencing is (hopefully) equally foreign, it is indispensible to navigate the world as a young person who is learning and developing these understandings himself.

By using a male protagonist, Erdrich is also making it clear that violence against women is not only a problem for women. Throughout the course of the text, we see many ways in which the men in Geraldine’s life are permanently and severely affected by her rape. The most obviously affected are Joe himself and his father. However it becomes clear that Geraldine’s rape effects men outside of her family as well, such as Joe’s best friend Cappy (who becomes complicit in her rapist’s murder) and even Father Travis, who is at one point accused of the rape but eventually tries to become a sort of spiritual guide for Joe as he’s dealing with his feelings of anger and loss—he somewhat prophetically tells Joe: “In order to purify yourself, you have to understand yourself.” Even Landon himself is mortally affected by his crime, when Joe seeks out private justice and ends his life. In all, Erdrich creates a space in which the fates and suffering of men and women are intimately intertwined. This tone is set in the very first chapter of the novel with the lines: “Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones.” In this sense, Erdrich is using Joe as a kind of mediator between the predominantly female issue of rape and the half of the population who doesn’t have to constantly fear it. Theses themes of codependence between men and women can even be uncovered in Linda’s story about her twin brother missing part of her own spirit.

Finally, using Joe as the narrator shifts the focus from the experience of violence to its radiating aftermath. The older voice of Joe surfaces to comment: “And here was the thing I didn’t understand then but do now—the loneliness. Nobody else…cared as much as we did about my mother. Nobody else was as desperate as the two of us, my father and I, to get our life back. To return to the Before.” Aside from exposing the reader to a heartbreaking description of grief, this passage also calls to attention the fact that acts of violence are not isolated events, and that they are highly transferrable across the families and communities in which they occur. When dealing with trauma from a narrative standpoint, perspective can make all the difference. Speaking as the victim of a crime can force anything but the trauma out of the picture, simply because the trauma itself would realistically and inevitably take control of the narrative just as surely as it will have taken control of the mind of the victimized character. By inhabiting a consciousness that is in the periphery of the trauma, readers are allowed to see it’s far-reaching consequences in a more comprehensive way.

Overall, Joe’s youth and gender work to tease out a lot of important ideas and themes that might otherwise be lost were The Round House told from an older, or even a female perspective. Erdrich’s decision to write from his point of view cleverly creates a bridge between readers and the world of the story, and ushers us across.

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