“Those assholes again?
Nah, he said.
So I knew his aunt or Elwin had done it.”
Violence permeates Joe’s life. It simmers beneath the surface of every single day. But in The Round House it erupts, nearly eclipses every other aspect of life for awhile.
Something happens to his mother. I’m not explaining it because for a long time Joe doesn’t actually know or understand what it is either. Just that it has changed everything.
“But I was beginning to notice that she was someone different from the before-mother. The one I thought of as my real mother. I had believed that my real mother would emerge at some point. I would get my before mom back. But now it entered my head that this might not happen. The damned carcass had stolen from her. Some warm part of her was gone and might not return. This new formidable woman would take getting to know, and I was thirteen. I didn’t have the time.”
You can guess. And many other readers have already read and discussed this book by now: maybe you already knew all about it, even before Joe did.
But in some ways, the details don’t matter anyway.
The point is that it changes everything.
Anyway, it’s not her story.
It’s Joe’s story.
So, there’s that.
“All day my mother’s words had seeped up through the surface of all I did, like a dark oil.”
What’s interesting about this is that it shifts the focus of violence perpetrated against a single woman, so that readers inhabit the fringes of the event, witness the ripple effect. To assist in this process, Louise Erdrich offers other stories of violence and loss surrounding this family and their personal experiences. Legends, even.
“The boy began to weep, but he was told that he must do it anyway. His name was Nanapush. The men urged him to kill his mother, tried to buck up his courage. But he got angry. He stuck the knife into one of the men who was holding his mother. But the man had on a skin coat and the wound wasn’t very deep.”
This story not only serves as an echo to Joe’s experiences, a young man coming of age, but also as background for characters loyal Erdrich readers will recognize from earlier novels and short stories. We know this boy. We know this wound.
“And so to be afraid of entering the cemetery by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb. The old cemetery was filled with its complications.”
Head-spinningly, the narrative also reaches forward in time, to the title of a later novel, LaRose (there are many references to this old friend of Joe’s mother, from boarding-school days, in The Round House, but I’m not sure this is the same character). This is Joe’s story, but it is the story of a community, too.
Throughout, readers have the “shock of telling. But then some resolution.” Mainly because of Joe’s age, and because his youthful perspective creates the opportunity to zoom outward from the violent episode, temporarily, to create at least the illusion of a panorama which contains new possibilities, there is hope at the end of this story.
And, if not hope, then endurance.