National Book Award Winner: The Round House, Louise Erdrich

round house

Activities Around a Maidu Roundhouse. 1964. Frank Day, artist. Oil paint on canvas. Collection of Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Lyle R. Scott Collection.

It is 1988.  Joe’s mother arrives home covered in blood, in shock and severely physically and psychically injured.  She has been brutally attacked, raped and brutalized somewhere in the vicinity of a ceremonial Round House, a sacred space on the North Dakota reservation on which Joe and his family live.  Joe, a thirteen year old member of the Ojibwe tribe, decides it is beyond the ability of his father, a judge, and mother to mete out justice so he and his best friend Cappy take matters into their own hands.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is literary fiction disguised as a crime novel, a searing portrait of the decimation of one family which represents the unjust degradations committed against a nation.

Walking through the kitchen door, I heard a splintering crash.  And then a keen, low, anguished cry.  My mother was backed up to the sink, trembling, breathing heavily.  My father was standing a few feet before her with his hands out, vainly groping in the air the shape of her, as if to hold her without holding her.  Between them on the floor lay a smashed and oozing casserole.

I looked at my parents and understood exactly what had happened.  My father had come in — surely Mom had heard the car, and hadn’t Pearl barked?  His footsteps, too, were heavy.  . . . Maybe he’d been too quiet this time.  Maybe he’d gone into the kitchen, just as he always used to, and then he’d put his arms around my mother as she stood with her back turned.  In our old life, she would have kept working at the stove or sink while he peered over her shoulder and talked to her.  The’d stand there together in a little tableau of homecoming.  Eventually, he’d call me in to help him set the table.  He’d change his clothes quickly while she and I put the finishing touches on the meal and then we would sit down together.  We were not churchgoers.  This was our ritual.  Our breaking bread, our communion.  And it all began with that trusting moment where my father walked up behind my mother and she smiled at his approach without turning.  But now they stood staring at each other helplessly over the broken dish.

Against this setting of sexual violence, Louise Erdrich’s main character Joe and his barely teen-aged friends are grappling with their own surging hormones and yearning for their own sexual experiences.  She contrasts the sacred round house with the Catholic church, dreams with reality, legends with the law, and the crime with justice system.  If the crime occurred on Native land, the suspect cannot be prosecuted because tribal courts may not prosecute non-Natives.  If it occurred on state land, state laws are in effect.  But Joe’s mother, the victim, cannot say where the acts occurred — only that they were somewhere in the vicinity of the round house.  As Maria Russo stated in the New York Times review of The Round House, “Law is meant to put out society’s brush fires, but in Native American history it has often acted more like the wind.”  ttp://

NYT imageNew York Times Illustration by Jon Han

The Round House was one of those books that kept popping up on recommended lists and I ignored it until the Carnegie Center’s Brown Bag Book Group chose it as a fall selection.  I’m very glad I read it.  As with all great literature, it opened a new world to my eyes; the closest I’ve been to North Dakota is probably Arizona or New Mexico but I haven’t any knowledge of Native American reservations or the Tribal Law and Order Act.  Nor was I aware, as Erdrich tells the reader in the afterword to her novel, that a recent Amnesty International report found “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.”

The National Book Awards website features a blog appreciation of The Round House which you can read here: house cover

Ultimately, this is one of my favorite types of books to read and would be an excellent choice for a book club.  The prose holds a myriad of chewy topics, characters ranging from humorous to villainous, young to ancient and a plot that keeps you anxiously turning the pages.  For our purposes at daeandwrite, it also includes lots of wonderful food options, often even playing a role in the plot, which seems appropriate for a book whose protagonist is a teenage boy.

I took some apple slices and put them on my tongue.  I looked at Cappy.  We ate another jam sandwich each and just stood there watching in mesmerized hunger until (Grandma) started lifting out the fry breads.  Then we each took a plate and stood beside her.  She took the hot fry breads out of the bubbling lard with tongs and put the lumpy golden rounds on our plates.  We said thank you.  She wanted and peppered the meat.  She dumped in a can of tomatoes, a can of beans.  We kept standing there, our plates out.  She heaped spoons of the crumbled meat mix on top of the fry breads.  On the table, there was a block of commodity cheese.  The cheese was frozen so it was easy to grate on top of the meat.  We were so hungry we sat down right at the table.  Zack and Angus were outside, through her sliding doors, in the courtyard.  She made their Indian tacos now like ours, called them in, and they sat on the couch and ate.


The passage above provides plenty of fodder, excuse the pun, but if you want more options there are plenty more.  Banana bread, chili with hamburger meat, tomato paste, Rotel and cumin, bannock (flat bread), Juneberry jam.  As the weather has intermittently turned colder here, I’d go with the fry bread, chili and juneberry jam over vanilla ice cream.

Fry Bread

1 pkg. dry yeast

3 cups warm water

1 tbsp. salt

1 tbsp. sugar

6 cups flour

2 tbsp. oil

1/2 cup cornmeal

Dissolve yeast in warm water then add salt and sugar. Let stand for 5 minutes covered with a towel.  Add flour and oil to liquid mixture.  Mix and put on floured bread board and knead until mixture is smooth.  Put dough in a greased bowl, cover with towel and let it rise for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from bowl and put on bread board, knead in the 1/2 cornmeal.  Make dough into 2 balls rolling each into 12 inch circles 1/2 inch thick.  Cut into 2 inch squares and drop into hot cooking oil.  (Works best with cast iron skillet.)  Fry 5 to 6 pieces at a time for only a few moments.  Drain on paper towel and sprinkle with white powdered sugar.

Bannock recipe, if you want to try it:

Juneberry jam can be ordered here:


The Round House is set in 1988 so you could go with the hits of that year.  Faith by George Michael was the top song that year, believe it or not.  Egad.

Joe’s uncle Whitey loves The Rolling Stones and that’s never a bad choice.  I’d go with Some Girls, Emotional Rescue or Tattoo You, all released in the early 80s.

    I’m not even going to try to name any appropriate movie actors other than for Linden Lark and for Father Travis.

Linden Lark:  Matt Damon

Father Travis:  Brad Pitt

Happy Reading!

One thought on “National Book Award Winner: The Round House, Louise Erdrich

  1. Pingback: LaRose, by Louise Erdrich | daeandwrite

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