Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is first and foremost a good story. If I was to recount the basic narrative in less than a page—as you would if someone asked you, “what was that one about?”—I think you’d find it interesting even then, and for me it would be hard to do so without wandering off into some enticing narrative thicket. That’s not something we can say about every book that toys with literary greatness.
Imagine someone asking you to tell the story of Mrs. Dalloway, and how difficult it would be to answer. They’re quite different entities, Mrs. Dalloway and The Round House, to be sure, and that’s not to say one is objectively better or worse than another. Such comparisons are ultimately facile. But it is to say that Louise Erdrich tells a beautiful and compelling story—in this case, a story that pushes and pulls on you from start to finish.
The subjects she chooses are visceral and necessary: violence against women, the cuckolding of justice on an Ojibwe reservation, the power of true friendship, and the symmetry of desperation and greed in our world. The urgency Erdrich feels for her themes is obvious, and it gives the work both tenderness and grit. She writes with the need to tell it just so, to be truthful to what it is and who it involves, and to avoid any proximal reporting. The result is a work that orbits the potency of its core on every page, a work unashamed of being what it has to be.
The characters, too, are unflinching in their construction. Flawed and hungry, unique and beautiful, they are accessible to us even as they kindle awareness of meanings that transcend the particular. What I loved about the characters is that they are not layered creations out of literary necessity; they are layered precisely as the world is layered, as we are layered. In this, The Round House is as much a vision as it is a story. It is a book that pierces the illusion of individuals disconnected from the powers they represent, to reveal that we are each indeed containers of history, agents of dreaming and need, and portents of time and place.
The externalized systems in our world attempt to displace the archetypal knowing of ourselves we once possessed, but those systems destroy what they seek to preserve. They rob us, too, of the power of who we are. Erdrich senses this I think, and lets it be what it is on the page. Thus the judge who cannot find justice, the priest who cannot find God, and the cop who cannot find clues. The powerful in this story are the ones who go against the grain, who walk the way that is their own to walk even if they flounder along the path. They are the ones who bring gifts back to the people.
The tragedy revealed by The Round House is the gifts that have been stolen, the physical and spiritual sustenance we all require that has been squandered, usurped, defiled or forgotten. It is when we find ourselves bereft that we, in turn, profane what matters most. In a fable contained within the greater novel, this force takes the form of hunger, which leaves a person vulnerable to possession by a wiindigoo. Such a person becomes an animal that sees other people as food, and if everyone in the community is in agreement, then the person must be killed. But great care must be taken in the killing of this person. Such a step should only be taken once all other remedies have been attempted.
The Round House is the story of one boy’s confrontation with a wiindigoo in the broad daylight of our broken world, and of the steps that must be taken to cast it aside. Erdrich shows that those steps, even taken with care and with courage, exact a toll. In a sense, there can be no justice—no genuine redemption—until the altar at the center of our being, and of our communities, is restored. The altar in this story is the Round House, the ceremonial ground where the physical world is joined with the spiritual, a place that echoes with the wisdom of the buffalo, and also the scene of the crime that sets this novel into motion. Erdrich shows us that the consequences of hunger are not individual, but shared. Until the hunger in us is fed, and the original bounty of this world recovered, we all remain vulnerable to the wiindigoo.