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Louise Erdrich was one of a small handful of contemporary writers whose careers were superhot when I was in creative writing school back in the mid-to-late-80s. The others were Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, and, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Bobby Ann Mason. These were the days before DFW and Eugenides and Lethem and Chabon and all their clever cohort. Minimalistic language outlining short, pithy narratives featuring underprivileged (or, at best, lower-middle) characters were the order of the day. That’s the context in which I originally discovered her. Love Medicine, her first, was on every teacher’s suggested reading list, was wedged under the armpit of every graduate student’s plaid flannel shirt. I don’t much remember Love Medicine, except to remember that I liked it, but I was playing catch-up in those days, trying to compete with students who had grown up in, it seemed to me at the time, much more literary and literate contexts than my pipeline-welder family had been able to provide. I was reading three or four books a day. I’d go to the library, check them all out, then go home and sit in the bathtub, taking them one at a time off the pile beside me until I was done with all of them, and pruny to boot. I had dropped out of school, but I was still living on my student loans. I figured this was what I was supposed to be doing: read everything worth reading. Maybe it was. A little bit later, I got snagged into my dotcom career and lost track of the literary thread until just recently.

I don’t have quite as much free time as I did back then, but I have embarked on a similarly ambitious reading project: I’m trying to read all the National Book Award finalists, which were announced October 10, before the winner is revealed on November 14. The Round House is the third of five that I’ve read. It’s the only book on the list by an author I had read before. (It’s kind of weird and surprising that I haven’t read Dave Eggers, and maybe I have — something short and online, probably — but I’ve never read one of his books, for sure.)

The Round House starts with the rape and attempted murder-by-immolation of an Ojibwe woman on a reservation in North Dakota by someone who knows enough about the complexities of the law relating to tribal autonomy to deliberately confuse and cloud the issue of where, how, and who should prosecute him — meaning that he gets off scott free, as far as the law is concerned. The family of the victim commences to try to find whatever justice it can, and then, eventually, does. If that sounds like the setup for a crime thriller, it should. This is sort of a crime thriller, except that it has much more going on from a character and cultural perspective than most crime novels. What really sticks out in the reader’s mind is not the plot, though the plot is as present in the book as it needs to be. The real reason to read the book is to spend time with the characters and the milieu and the language — which I guess, ultimately, is what defines it as “literary” in the traditional sense. Right?

As for the book’s value as an entertaining read (even when I read literary novels, I want them to entertain me, and that’s why I read them): I’d say it’s the strongest of the three so far, the one I’d vote for if I had a vote, with the caveat that I still have two more books to go, so that judgement could change.

At first, I was afraid it would be nothing but depressing, but it was not nothing but depressing. There are books about rape that just circle the pain, understandably, understandably — but unpleasantly. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to subject myself to a book like that. I’m glad that that’s not what it turned out to be. I’m not saying that those books shouldn’t exist, or that I never want to read them. But I hardly ever do want to read them. I wanted to read this one. It didn’t drill me with the unpleasantness of its subject matter so hard that I felt violated myself. (And, again, I’m not saying books should never try to make me feel that way; I’m just saying that that’s not the way that I wanted to feel).

But it’s not the other kind of rape story, either: the uplifting, inspirational kind. There is no self-help vibe. Erdrich doesn’t sentimentalize her character’s response to the horrible thing. While it’s true that the characters put the horrible thing behind them by the end of the book, their recovery feels inevitable and organic, not forced or exemplary. It kind of happens in the cracks and corners of their lives, despite, not because of, what they do — like the trees that grow up through the concrete foundations of the house, in the first few paragraphs of the book. Their recovery is a relief to them, and to the reader, but it does not feel like a victory. It just feels simply like living. The characters, especially the protagonist, are too lively, too full of mischief and reality, to succumb to malaise, and so, eventually, they just refuse to. Maybe they end up a little more bent and weirdly-souled than they would have otherwise. But they make it anyway. It’s like that. That’s all it is.

The characterizations are really, really strong, especially the protagonist, the 13-year-old son of the woman who was raped. These people invaded my nighttime dreams while I was reading the book. My subconscious mind wanted to continue to interact with them, have conversations with them, wondered what they were doing. That’s always a good sign of a good book, at least by my standards, which are not strictly “literary” but overlap, sometimes, with “literary,” I guess.

I’m sure my professors and classmates would be horrified by my standards of judgement these days. Ah well.

Two more to go before the announcement: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, a collection of short stories, and Eggars’ A Hologram for the King. I might just finish in time!

Elsewhere on the Web:

Erdrich herself has gone through some nightmarish family drama as an adult — drama that really, no-lie, reached tabloid levels of sensationalism and sadness and scandal. Bookslut’s summary of what went down is fascinating, in a want-to-but-can’t-look-away kind of way:

What really happened may forever be a mystery to outsiders, but it began when Louise brought in a therapist to help their kids deal with Dad’s depression. That therapist contacted the authorities, stating she suspected child abuse. … read more

In this interview with a New York Times blogger, Erdrich talks about the legal and political realities at the heart of the story.

Right now tribal courts can only prosecute tribal members. The problem is that over 80% of the perpetrators of rapes on reservations are non-Native. Most are not prosecuted. The bill went forward only to stall in the House, blocked by Republican votes. Hate to say it, but that one’s on them. … more