Speaking of Coming of Age stories (see end of previous post), Louise Erdrich’s recent National Book Award-winning The Round House certainly qualifies.
Young Joe is the son of a tribal judge on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His mother is raped and sinks into a deep depression. The 13-year-old is determined to solve the crime and heal his mother. At first his father allows Joe to participate in the review of case records, looking for clues as to anyone who might want revenge on the judge. As Joe, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of his friends, begins to investigate on his own, however, the judge becomes more circumspect. He does allow Joe to sit in on attempts to interview his mother, and, after a few false starts, Joe eventually puts enough pieces together to identify the rapist. The problem is that because of legal complications over who has jurisdiction over the crime, it is unlikely the white perpetrator will ever be prosecuted. With that, Joe takes justice into his own hands, in an act that might be considered more one of revenge than justice.
His quest for justice is accompanied by the usual adolescent adventures with alcohol, sex, and even religion. It is often hard to separate comedy from tragedy as the deadly serious detective work intersects with and gets sidetracked by youthful escapades and a tangled web of native and non-native relationships, some of which help in solving the crime and some of which hilariously distract from it. In the end, though, comedy gives way to tragedy and death. Similarly, mainstream American culture blends with Native beliefs and practices, and both cultures contribute to Joe’s initiation into adulthood.
As in the typical Coming of Age story, Joe encounters, not only the evil in the world, but also the evil in himself, and one wonders at the end what direction he will take. Will he come to terms with his experience, make peace with it, and develop into a healthy maturity? Or will he be eaten up with disillusionment, distrust, and guilt? Though we are told that Joe goes on to marry and graduate from law school, we don’t really get a good answer about his psychological health, although he is able to narrate the events of that traumatic summer with painful honesty (and perhaps we are to believe that in the fictional world the writing is therapeutic).
At the end of the novel, Joe returns home with his parents, who “knew everything.” There were no tears, no anger, not even a word spoken “after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old.” They pass the spot where on his “childhood trips” they had always stopped for ice cream. This time they do not stop. Childhood is over. “We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.” This does not sound like redemption; it sounds like living on in the wake of injustice and tragedy.
In Louise Erdrich’s Afterword to the novel, she cites a 2009 report by Amnesty International called “Maze of Injustice,” which documents the shocking statistics on the rapes of Native American women, most of which are perpetrated by non-Natives and very few of which are ever prosecuted, partly because of neglect and partly because of legal confusion, not to mention the ones that are never reported. The statistics on vigilante justice, if any exist, are not mentioned.
It is ironic that Joe goes on to follow in his father’s footsteps in the legal profession. Are we to hold out hope that he can play a role in righting some of the wrongs against his people by legal means? Could that be the redemption for his illegal method of “righting the wrong” against his mother? Or is it merely an ironic extension of his life as a Native person trapped in a “maze of injustice,” even while working in the “justice” system?
To what extent is the novel an instance, an image, and an allegory of the plight of Native people, whose contemporary lives are a constant reenactment of their history, a history of oppression by white society, of victimization by a white legal system, and of entanglement in an elusive, often tragic, search for “justice”?