I don’t want to talk about what happens in the beginning of Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award winner The Roundhouse. It’s the kind of opener that might cause some people to close the book and walk away without looking back. I only mention it because for as violent and consuming as it is, it does not define the story.
A recent study on literature showed subjects to be more empathic, with a stronger sense of imagination, after reading literary fiction. Readers of Erdrich may experience a wide range of emotion as they sometimes witness awful things in her stories, but she also masterfully brings us into a reality where tragedy is not the end of the world — instead revealing even deeper emotions if we are willing to work through the initial discomfort.
The Roundhouse is a coming of age story that takes place on a reservation, told from the perspective of Joe, a thirteen year old boy whose father is a tribal judge, and mother is a clerk in a law office. His mother experiences an unspeakable act of violence causing him to search out the man responsible while making sense of a world where tribal law is thin at best, rarely offering justice or protection.
Somehow Erdrich has believably gotten into the headspace of a boy that age, with ribald humor and entertaining dialogue. Most of the humor revolves around Joe’s group of friends who adventure along with him, who are pretty damn funny as they comb the reservation in search of clues regarding his mother’s crime. They become boy detectives navigating the dark world around them as little lights, illuminating the landscape as they turn the corner from innocence to the complexities and arrival of adulthood in the last summer of their youth.
Through this novel (as well as Erdrich’s other stories) I have found myself intrigued by the richly illustrated Ojibwe culture. The stories of elders, the spirit world among us, and the parables of life and death are impressive with their depth and humor.
Erdrich is also one of the last pioneers attempting to keep her native Ojibwean language alive, as it is one of the thousands of languages in danger of extinction. In an interview with Bill Moyers, she said, “We never question the importance of keeping an artifact, of keeping something special that tells us about people who lived long ago, right? We have museums that we devote millions of dollars to keeping these artifacts. But how much more extraordinary is it to have a living language that tells us about people, since before we have a history of these people. It’s all in the language.”
Erdrich doesn’t just write literary fiction, she gives us view into a culture that is teeming with stories that are too rich not to be shared. Life will vanish, goodness will at times go and bend to darkness that is seemingly insurmountable, but stories like Erdrich’s can redeem, heal, and have staying power. As long as they are told, the lights will not go out.