Louise Erdrich on her U.S. National Book Award winner, The Round House

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Author Louise Erdrich, seen at her store BirchBark Books in Minneapolis, is one of the 2012 winners of the U.S. National Book Awards. (Dawn Villella/Associated Press)


Louise Erdrich is the author of 14 novels, short stories, poetry and children's books. Her latest novel, The Round House, won the U.S. National Book Award earlier this week. Last month, she spoke about the book with Eleanor Wachtel in an onstage interview at the International Festival of Authors. Like her earlier novel, A Plague of Doves, The Round House is set in the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota. Both books revolve around a violent crime, and explore how racial hatred and a history of injustice can reverberate for generations in a community.

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Religion is important in the lives of her characters, both Catholicism and native spirituality. In the past, Erdrich has referred to her "Gothic Catholic childhood," because she was brought up feeling comfortable with both. "I didn't see anything strange about having both beliefs," she said. "But I think now it's there's a much more polarized situation."

Erdrich went on to say that the Catholic Church's rituals and cult of the Virgin Mary have stuck with her. "I came away with a wonderful sense of the iconography of the Church, and a sort of helpless lust for the little statues of the Virgin." But she also felt what she describes as "a sort of rage," because "it's patriarchal, mean-spirited. The anger in the Church is so thinly veiled as spirituality. The anger toward women, the anger towards acceptance of other beliefs. And the crimes of the past that have been brought to the surface in the past 20 years have been so horrendous, so overwhelming, so painful, that I have to step away from it. I have to just keep my little statues and pretend they have nothing to do with the Church itself."

Erdrich also connects her feelings about the act of writing with her Catholic childhood. "The confessional screen, and the murmurs of the priest behind it, and the thought that everything you're telling is under total secrecy, that did get to me as a child," Erdrich said. "So I think when I started writing, it was with the sense that no one was going to read this. I could be in this secret world of characters and stories, places that I was creating, and that wherever the readers were, they were under oath not to reveal this to anybody."

Land, history and justice are central themes of The Round House. In the opening chapter, a respected native woman is violently raped, an act that changes the life of her young son, Joe, who's the narrator. "This particular situation has a lot to do with how land was both signed over by treaty, later seized, and at other times sold through allotment," Erdrich explained. This has led to complicated jurisdictional issues. "So when a crime is committed, sometimes it takes a while to figure out who's responsible for prosecuting the crime. And when it's the crime of rape, it's so difficult in the first place for women to obtain justice, and in the second place you have these various jurisdictional laws, and in the next place, there are certain cases that have been decided and settled, that have taken away the tribal courts' ability to prosecute non-natives."

The book's title refers to a central place in every First Nations community. "In my world, it's a sacred place where every sort of ceremony can take place. The tribal soul is really kept there," Erdrich said, explaining that it "centres everyone and keeps everyone aware that this is the way the seasons work, this is the way everything works in life, it really is circular...So when this place is invaded, it's a people, it's a woman, but it's an entire culture that's invaded."

A priest in the novel comments that "every evil, whether moral or material, results in good." Though her character believes it, Erdrich doesn't know if it's true or not. "I think it's a very sound way to proceed in life. To somehow say to yourself, this is beyond appalling, this is horrendous, but God has said as evil as this is, it will result in good. So that's a faith that he has."

But she goes on to point out that taking action is a useful response too. "It's just as helpful to believe what Joe and his friends believe, that something has to be done."

First aired on Writers & Company (4/11/12)