About four months into the composition of her outstanding 14th novel, The Round House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I just never thought anything like this would happen to me,” Erdrich says during a call to her home outside Minneapolis, where she lives with her second husband and their 11-year-old daughter. Another daughter, Persia, lives nearby and works at Birchbark Books, the independent bookstore Erdrich owns with her sister in Minneapolis. During her illness, a third daughter came home from New York to help care for the household. “There’s no breast cancer in my family, and I’ve always been incredibly healthy. It was picked up by accident by my wonderful doctor, who found what hardly showed up on a mammogram.”
Lucky thing. The cancer turned out to be a very aggressive, fast-growing strain, but caught at such an early stage, it was entirely treatable. Erdrich is now “very well,” she says. “I was very lucky with this.”
Still, in the first days of her treatment Erdrich did not feel so lucky. She wondered if she’d be able to write through it. Then, remarkably, she entered one of the most productive periods of her writing career. Not only did she work intensively on The Round House, but she wrote a completely new version of her seventh novel, The Antelope Wife, and a new children’s book, Chickadee, all of which are arriving on booksellers’ shelves in summer and early fall.
“I think it’s because I played the C card,” Erdrich says, laughing. Throughout the conversation, she laughs easily and frequently, seeming very much at home with herself. “I suddenly had a good excuse to get out of just about anything anyone asked of me. It’s ridiculous! Why should a person have to go through cancer in order to just say I’ve got to stay home and write? But that seems to be what happened.”
Since she made her name with Love Medicine and The Beet Queen in the 1980s, Erdrich has been writing about the social and spiritual lives of contemporary Native Americans. Her brush with cancer seems to have sharpened both the emotional and narrative drive of her latest novel, The Round House, which tells the riveting story of 13-year-old Joe Coutts coming of age on a North Dakota reservation in 1988.
In Edrich's powerful new novel, a mother's rape launches her son's search for justice.
“It’s always hard to tell what piece of yourself goes into a book,” Erdrich says. “My particular fear was of leaving my children. As a parent you’re not really afraid for yourself, you’re just afraid to leave them. I’m never helpless around my children, but I was helpless then. And I sensed nothing but them wanting to help me. My memories are of laughing very hard, reading funny notes, eating wonderful food that my daughters prepared and holding their hands. The sharpness of the emotion I felt may have helped me in understanding the characters. It’s a very character-driven book, and it’s very much about emotions between Joe and his mother.”
It gives little away to say that in the first pages of The Round House, Joe’s mother, Geraldine Coutts, is brutally raped by a white man in a savage act of vengeance. Traumatized, Geraldine withdraws into silence, leaving her husband, a tribal judge, with a kind of roiling, helpless grief and anger, and Joe with the need to resolve profound questions about justice, revenge and the inexplicable nature of evil.
Justice, Erdrich says, was the seminal issue for The Round House. “Right now, tribal governments can’t prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on their land,” she says. In the novel’s afterword, she writes about the appalling numbers of non-Indian men who rape Indian women on tribal lands and escape prosecution because of jurisdictional issues. “I’ve known about this for a long time but it’s an injustice I never knew how to write about. I didn’t want to write a polemical piece. Every time I’d talk about the novel, I’d say it’s about jurisdiction and—YAWN, people’s eyes would glaze over. I thought, I have to find a way to tell this story that doesn’t make them completely lose consciousness.”
Readers of The Round House will find themselves fully alert and paying rapt attention to the story. This is one of Erdrich’s most suspenseful novels. “I wanted to make it a book with suspense,” Erdrich says, “so I keep answering questions all through the book. There’s always something unanswered.”
But, as she hopes, it is the vibrancy of Erdrich’s characters that give this book its liveliness. Joe and his three valiant boyhood pals ride around the reservations on their bicycles, longing for girls and getting into the minor, sometimes comical scrapes young teenage boys do, even while they are forced to confront daunting moral challenges.
“I grew up in a small town where your bike was your means of freedom,” Erdrich says when asked about how she entered the mindset of her boy characters. “My brothers did crazy things, my husband is one of many brothers, and my daughters were always great pals with boys. So I just knew and know a great many 13- and 14-year-old boys. That age always gets to me. I know boys of that age who really hide their tenderness for their mothers, and I wanted to write something about that because it’s so mysterious: that simultaneous feeling of wanting to break away and wanting to protect them. Having gone through life with my daughters and their friends, I just have this sense of a great purity of courage in those boys. They haven’t thought it out, but they know exactly what’s right.”
The spiritual part of Joe’s journey involves a mix of Native spiritual practices and Catholicism. Joe assists tribal elders with their sweat lodge ceremonies, but he and his friends are fascinated by Father Travis, a virile young priest and an Iraq War veteran. “I’ve always had a different sort of priest in every book. This priest is the first one who has a sense of irony and who has really questioned his own life,” Erdrich says.
“The Ojibwe people’s earliest contact with non-Natives was with the Jesuits, so there’s a long history of entwinement of the cultures,” she points out. “But it’s always up to the individual priest how much he’ll allow the traditionalists into his belief system. It’s anathema to the church itself to admit the truth or goodness of any other form of religion, especially a non-Christian religion. But priests are sometimes hit over the head by the fact that they’re trying to teach spirituality to an intensely spiritual people, and they’re trying to take their spirituality away from them in order to force another form of spirituality upon them. Father Travis has a lot of respect for traditional people, he tells Joe. He has, I guess, a very masculine, soldierly view of the world and is willing to talk to Joe on a level that I don’t think most priests really would.”
Joe and his friends come of age discovering the existence of injustice and real evil in the world. But Erdrich’s own vision has a wider embrace. Surprisingly, The Round House is often laugh-out-loud funny. This is because the elders, who have been through their own torments and sorrows, joke about everything, especially about sex.
“It’s a relief to be around elders because they can say anything,” Erdrich says. “They delight in embarrassing young people. They don’t have to hold anything back, and there’s just a lot of sexual joking that elders can do that young people aren’t really supposed to. I guess part of me wants to joke on that level too but I’m not quite allowed to yet. So those parts were a lot of fun to write.
“When I’m with older relatives, we just laugh nonstop. I laugh a lot with people my age, but not with the kind of merciless hilarity that comes in looking back. It’s an intense sort of freedom that maybe only comes to those who are lucky enough to be that old and be able to see back into the crazy hearts of the young.”
And that is the real wonder of Louise Erdrich’s newest novel. It vividly portrays both the deep tragedy and crazy comedy of life.