First Nations

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On two successive nights this week I woke suddenly, yelling out in fright. In my dreams I was moments away from becoming the victim of a horrific assault. Shaken, I turned on the light, shifting uncomfortably in sheets soaked in my sweat, and I reached for The Round House. Louise Erdrich’s profound novel haunted my dreams and moved me to tears and laughter in my waking hours.

Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe living on a reservation in North Dakota, doesn’t escape from her nightmare. On a gentle spring Sunday in 1988 her thirteen year old son Joe and her husband Bazil, a tribal judge, peel her fingers from the steering wheel of her car and speed her unyielding body to the hospital. The front of her shirt is covered in vomit and she reeks of gasoline. Raped and nearly burned alive, Geraldine escaped when her captor went in search of matches.

Geraldine’s physical wounds heal in time, but the spirit of this proud, vibrant woman is crushed. She tumbles into depression, refusing to leave her bedroom, barely eating, escaping her terror through the false protection of sleep. The Round House opens with this crime and it becomes the incident which ushers Joe, the novel’s narrator, out of the smooth waters of his childhood into the murky depths of maturity.

The Round House is more than a coming-of-age story. The novel has many layers, each beautifully rendered in language that is so pure it belies the complex themes. The search for Geraldine’s attacker propels the narrative and in this, it is a tense literary thriller. It is an exploration of tribal law and the protracted effort by the federal government to chip away at Native American sovereignty. Tribal political and judicial limbo is a chord that resonates throughout Erdich’s works, yet when told through the perspective of a child it becomes the character’s discovery of his legacy and not the political agenda of the author. It is a novel rich with history, mythology and adventure.

But more than these themes, this is a novel of family. The tight union of Bazil, Geraldine and Joe forms the familial core. Erdrich’s portrait of a strong woman collapsing dug so deeply under my skin – this cold reality was the source of my nightmares. But the ways a husband and a son respond to the woman they love as she falls apart, how hard they work to lift her up and save her, are heartfelt and poignant. Erdrich captures each character’s emotions and reactions in vivid and graceful detail.

The theme of family extends through the tribal community. Erdrich reveals daily life on a reservation. She shows us what we think we know: the poverty and alcoholism on the inside, the marginalization and racism from the outside. But she also conveys a sense of community that few of us will ever experience, no matter how idyllic our childhood. Within the tribe everyone belongs to everyone else – the definition of family is not limited to blood relations. The communal responsibility demonstrates a solid foundation built on shared history and beliefs.

Despite the violent crime that churns the plot, there many moments of levity and sweetness in The Round House. The novel’s comic foil is Mooshom, Joe’s ancestor and tribal elder. And I do mean elder. He’s entering his second century as salty as a sailor and with libido to spare. The many scenes Joe shares with his besties Cappy, Angus and Zack are ripe with thirteen year old boy hormones, antics and tenderness.

I can’t sing loudly enough my praises for The Round House. I also can’t believe this is the first Louise Erdrich novel I’ve read. It has been a year of celebrated-American author discoveries for me: Terry Tempest Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, not to mention the astonishing debut of Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist). That they are each deeply connected to the American West is significant to me as a reader. Through their words I have developed a deeper understanding, love and compassion for my enormous and complex backyard.

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Book Review: Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Through Black SpruceThrough Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Moosonee. End of the road. End of the tracks," declares Will Bird, a Cree bush pilot lying broken in a hospital bed in this end of the tracks village in northern Ontario. He weaves his story silently, his voice imprisoned by his comatose state. Moosonee is remote, rugged, its Cree Nation inhabitants largely self-sufficient; it is also vulnerable. Poverty fuels drug and alcohol addiction. Those who do leave the community for the excitement and economic opportunity of Toronto or Montreal often fall prey to the cities' darker sides.

This is a world of deep and disturbing contrasts. The great beauty of Ontario's bush, the tightly-knit community that watches over its own, the commitment to holding on to an independent life are set against the violence of survival, the turning away from First Nations' traditions and the glamour and degradation of shining and sinister cities.

Will is the son of Xavier Bird, the WWI sharpshooter whose story was told in the extraordinary Three Day Road. Although it is not necessary to have read Three Day Road to be fully engaged in Through Black Spruce, it provides considerable context as Will reflects on his past and considers his motivations. It also gives a broader historical perspective on Will's tribe and the experience of First Nations' people in the region.

Will takes us back through his recent history, explaining in tones that are unsentimental but often contrite, rueful, self-effacing and hilarious, how he came to this hospital bed. His story is the heart and soul of this novel. His sweet honesty charms, whether it is the stumbling jogs he takes along a dirt road, trying to shuffle off his mid-life beer belly, the ill-advised shine he takes to a blind and deaf "dump" bear, his halting romance with a childhood friend, or his multiple attempts to quit drinking. Most tender is his great love for his nieces, Annie and Suzanne.

Suzanne has vanished. Her beauty and wild spirit launches her into a lucrative modeling career, but somewhere along the way she mixed in with the unscrupulous. Her missteps lead directly to the hospital where her uncle now lies, unresponsive and shrinking. Annie, her less-lovely but fiercer sister, undertakes an Odyssean journey to the great cities of the south to find her.

Annie's story intertwines with Will's. Both narratives are rich with themes of grievous errors, the search for redemption, the struggle to balance old ways with new pressures, and the reluctance to believe they are worthy of love. I struggled, however, to connect with Annie's experiences as she shimmers on the edges of the model-and-club scenes in Toronto, Montreal and New York City. She is too easily seduced by the glamour, the drugs, the money. Instead of finding her sister, Annie becomes her. The scenes border on the melodramatic as the world outside of Moosonee, particularly the United States, is portrayed as unrelentingly corrupt and dangerous. Annie is trailed through each city by a homeless, internet-savvy mute Indian, Gordon, whose chiseled torso and ropy muscles save Annie at every turn. Annie is able to return the favor as the two return north to the protection of the clan and Annie becomes teacher-guide to Gordon. Although his presence is odd, Gordon embodies a vision of the modern Indian returning to his cultural roots, to learn and embrace the old ways as he cleanses his soul of the corrupt contemporary world. He is a far more intriguing character than Annie's other new pals: models and it-crowd sycophants - who are ciphers that add little to Annie's development or to the plot thread of Suzanne's disappearance.

But Boyden's skill as a storyteller propels the reader through these incongruous passages. The constantly-shifting narrative maintains a taut pace. The events - whether jolting or endearing - are unexpected and drive you to turn each page. The central characters are brought to life with vivid description and fine dialogue. You ache for their salvation. This is an immensely satisfying read by a supremely gifted writer.

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