The Round House tells the story of a brutal rape that takes place on an Indian reservation and the resulting fall-out, particularly the effect it has on the rape victim’s thirteen-year-old son, Joe, who narrates the book. I think the strength of the book really is in just how devastating Erdrich is able to make the rape feel; one can get desensitized to things like rape when one watches enough Law & Order: SVU, right? But Erdrich fills the victim with all the necessarily resultant terror, depression, despair, hatred and pain and makes us feel every bit of it. The book is a bit sketchy in some other ways. The book hews very close to a lot of Native American literature clichés. It uses some “meaningful” stories told in a very traditional way, but the stories never quite cohere emotionally or symbolically the way I think Erdrich wants them too. And some of the coming of age stuff is clichéd as well. But some of the characters are nicely sketched, particularly Father Travis, the reservation priest, a man deeply troubled and far from the kind of person you might initially think he is. The book reaches for a kind of transcendent hopelessness in its portrait of the cycle of violence on Indian reservations, the hopelessness of real escape and the inability to see justice done amidst the tangle of laws governing Indian nations. It’s a book that is occasionally too strange for its own good; the story would be better told in a more straightforward fashion, but Erdrich has literary pretensions that are too lofty for the simplicity that would bring the emotion home even more. It’s still a good book, but it’s one I recommend only conditionally. 3 stars.
tl;dr – story of vicious cycle of violence on Indian reservations is emotionally overwhelming when Erdrich lets it be; unfortunately, all too often she falls prey to literary pretensions that blunt the emotion when it should be strongest. 3 stars.