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Book Club Reflection: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

21 Apr

It’s been a long time since I went to a book club meeting and no one had anything particularly negative to say about a book. I really enjoyed it and I’m glad it’s one I got to discuss with other book lovers because there was a lot to talk about! To see my thoughts, you can read my review.

Please know that this post will discuss the book in its entirety and will spoil the ending for those that haven’t read it.

When we were introducing ourselves and saying a quick something about the book, one member said something that stuck with me. “I found myself agreeing with things I don’t normally.” She was talking about capital punishment and how much we wanted Lark to suffer for what he’d done. A few said the book reminded them of Stephen King’s The Body, which I haven’t read but feel that the main boys probably help with the comparison.

This book comes with the highest acclaim. Yes, it won the National Book Award but even more than that, it’s highly recommended. One of our members recalled watching a TV special where a panel of authors were being interviewed, one of which was Toni Morrison. When asked who her favorite contemporary American author is, she said Erdrich. And if one only had time to read one of Erdrich’s books, The Round House is the one to read. I tried to find a video of this somewhere but was unable to. If anyone is able to find it, please let me know and I’ll add it here

One of the comments I made in my review and a lot of others agreed with is that Erdrich is very convincing as a 13-year-old boy. She’s a very talented author. Many found the book to be very descriptive, which I didn’t notice. Maybe the audiobook influenced that. The beginning was very heavy and started out with some tough subject matter and we were all surprised by the amount of happiness and humor stored later in the novel. It was a nice surprise after rape and racism early on.

We talked about why it was important that Joe was 13 during the course of the book. The obvious answer was that he was primed for a coming-of-age tale. He was full of raging hormones and emotions, mainly anger and wanted to act out. He lost his childhood very quickly when some of his friends were still boys. These friends were very key to him during such a tumultuous time in his life, especially Cappie. The boys seemed a little older than 13 to us, but we think that is due to the environment where they grew up. They were exposed to a lot and had to have thick skin growing up. A lot of us were struck by the racism expressed by the pregnant woman at the hospital early in the book. It helped set a stage for how the Native American characters were going to be treated throughout. By the end, Joe’s mom was treating him like a man instead of a boy. He had an adult relationship with his parents and he was a man in the other characters’ eyes.

If Joe had been a female character, we think the book might have been a little different. We wondered if a female would have reacted int he same way. Would violence have been the answer? Or would a girl be afraid that she was next? If her mother isn’t safe, she’s not safe and should be scared. On the other hand, a female might have been just as violent, thinking that if she didn’t stick up for her mother, no one was going to stick up for her if the same thing happened to her. It could have gone in a very similar way, but the motivations behind it would have been very different.

Our moderator had pulled up some facts about Native American/White crimes. Approximately 1 in 3 Native American Women are raped by a white man. Why are these crimes not prosecuted? Well, we have to turn to the 1978 US Supreme Court case of Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe which ruled that Native Americans do not have the right to prosecute non-Indians. Wow. There have been a lot of other cases since, I’ll mention, but this is a major decision. We were surprised that with all these statistics and legal loopholes, there weren’t more cases of rape and violence mentioned in the book.

One of the techniques Erdrich used that we liked was the Native American legends and stories. The stories Mooshum told in his sleep, the spirit animals that seemed to follow the characters around, and the rituals all played a bit part in the story. It gave everything a slightly unreal tinge to it and made the whole story feel like a legend itself.

The story challenged the westernized idea of family. The family that took care of Joe and raised him was larger than his immediate relatives. His grandmother fed his friends like they were her own grandchildren and Linda looked out for Joe like he was her own child.

Joe’s immediate family relationships were challenged through the novel. His parents were older than most, calling him ‘Oops’ because he was unplanned. He thought of his father as old and slow at the beginning because he didn’t take action, but the relationship between the two matured quickly after Geraldine’s accident and they two were very respectful of each other at the end. He respected his father’s inaction and recognized that it was the right thing for him to do. Basil was so far into his wife’s pain and helping her deal with it that he wasn’t processing his own pain and it was putting a damper on his relationship with his son.

The point of view used in the novel was that of a memory. Joe was talking about what happened when he was 13 from an undisclosed age, likely around 50. He reveals some things about the future to us, such as his marriage to Margaret, his job as an attorney and his father’s eventual death. So the open-ended ending does have some answers.  If he’s a successful attorney, he likely never went to jail for a crime. Or if he was prosecuted the Native American/White discrepancy kept him from being charged and he was still able to practice law. A lot of our members felt a little more at peace with then ending after ruminating on this.

The minor characters in this story were great. Sonja was a favorite of mine though many of us were surprised when she took Joe’s money. Surprised and a bit mad. She’d had a very hard life before Whitey and though being with him felt like being rescued, she was still in a bad place. Maybe even a worse place. We were surprised when Whitey said she was coming back. Maybe she’d run out of money already because we couldn’t think of another reason to come back.

Linda was a great character as well. None of us knew how she was going to react to her brother’s death  and we think her relationship with Joe before the event was a big reason she reacted so mildly. If she and Joe had been strangers, she might have pressed charges. I was surprised that Joe hid the gun at Linda’s house, but we rationalized that after Linda had saved her brother’s life, she would be the last person anyone suspected of killing him.

Joe felt a strong need for justice. To him, the issue was black and white. A man hurt his mother, someone needed to hurt the man. He didn’t see shades of grey, but his father did. If Basil had taken up the shot-gun, would he have been prosecuted. I have my theory on why Joe never went through the justice system and it mainly has to do with Cappie. Basil would have made the first shot. Would he have been charged with the crime?

But the story we’re presented with has Cappie killing Lark. He’s Joe’s best friend and always had his back. Then Whitey covered for him at the gas station because (I don’t understand why) he knew what had happened. They all covered for each other because the sense of an extended family was present. They were all in it together. They’d been taught from childhood that they had to watch out for each other because the government and legal system were against them. I liked this part of the ending.

The part I didn’t like was how abrupt the book’s ending felt. One of our members saw an allusion to Cappie’s death earlier in the book, but many of us missed it. I don’t understand why it had to end that way and it made me sad. Thought I still loved the book.

Our next selection will take us into the world of science fiction with A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. I’m halfway through now and have some mixed feelings. We’ll see how I feel when this is over.

Until next time, write on.

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