Louise is back. I understand she had a great trial with breast cancer during the last couple of years, but not succumb, and here she is with this stupendous novel. My buddy didn’t like it. My wife put it down after 50 pages. I couldn’t put it down at all, either literally or figuratively. And it won the National Book Award, so some people agreed with me.
13-year-old Joe Coutts mom, Geraldine, is raped and beaten. The event sends her to her room, where it seems she’s determined to stay forever. Joe’s dad is a tribal judge, and he’s working with the tribal police and the FBI to investigate, but there are questions of jurisdiction. The place where the crime happened (not easy to figure out with mom staying mute), is a several-corners area where tribal/county/private land intersect in confusing patterns. Mom’s not sure of the exact spot.
Impatient with all the squabbling, Joe decides he and his buddies will conduct their own inquiry and, eventually, mete out their own justice. As always with an Erdrich tale, the events and the morality of the narrative become entangled with tribal myth. In this case, the most important is that of the wiindigoo, a force of evil embodied by a human or animal. There are all kinds of theories about how to recognize and deal with this force, and they’re contained in ancient tales. Old Nanapush, whom we’ve encountered in other Erdrich stories, plays an important post-mortem part in this one, with the story of a boy gone hunting a buffalo during a blizzard. It’s a perfect metaphor for Joe’s quest and gives the story a spiritual dimension that carries it far beyond the limits of what might be a well-done, but fairly ordinary coming-of-age crime story.
I won’t go into how Joe’s quest turns out. It would be a violation of the book to try encapsulating Erdrich’s artistry here.
i think maybe a reason for being put off by this story is that it’s tough and ugly. Joe’s not a real likable kid sometimes (not an uncommon trait among 13-year-olds), and many of his decisions are just plain stupid, though they all fit with his psychology. Too, his relationship with his parents is problematic. Part deep affection, often completely alienated. Again, sound like a 13-year-old? Anyhow, I challenge any writer–male or female-to show me a better rendering of the impulses and relationships among adolescent boys than Louise gives us here. And, once again, awful as it is, it’s funny. And, once again, we fall in love with the despised and the outcast.
Finally, it turns out that this book is partly a protest against one more horrible injustice perpetrated on the Native tribes. Erdrich is far too good a writer to engage in preachy polemic, but here’s from the afterword:
“AS 2009 report by Amnesty International, included the following statistics: 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (a figure certainly higher as Native Women often do not report rape: 86 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.” A 2010 federal law may improve the situation.
For a fine summing up of how Joe and his family and, indeed most of us, deal with horrific events, I offer these last sentences of Round House.
We passed over [the reservation boundary] in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.