American writer Louise Erdrich knew exactly the story she wanted to tell in her National Book Award-nominated novel The Round House. She wanted to expose the tangled web of  justice on native reserves – which makes it unclear whether federal or state or tribal police have jurisdiction — and show how it makes achieving justice difficult. The story she tells, of a rape of a woman living on a North Dakota reserve in 1988, is also a powerful portrait of how the ripples of that act shake the community around her.

Her narrator is Joe, the 13-year-old son of the rape victim, who must grapple with what has happened to his mother at a time when he is sometimes ambivalent toward his parents or embarrassed by them. At the same, he feels protective of his mother Geraldine and is young enough to be shaken by her withdrawal from family life as she attempts to heal, mentally and physically.

'I do know and feel that the attitude toward native women and the trafficking of native women and the hysterical innate sense that somehow native women are more sexually available is really exploited – it’s part of Canadian culture as well' —Louise Erdrich

"I didn’t know how to tell it. Then I found Joe and I had a narrator that after the first couple of chapters I realized could take me through the whole book and that’s  very  unusual for me. I usually change points of view," says Erdrich, who has written about reserve life frequently, from her first book Love Medicine to The Plague of Doves, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The daughter of a Chippewa mother and a German father, Erdrich has four daughters of her own. She says she finds it easy to tap into a child or adolescent voice in her writing, drawing partly from her experiences with her children, partly from memory, but also from her imagination. A master of the first person voice, she gives Joe the wild eagerness of a boy interspersed with spurts of teenage rage. With his four friends, he rides his bike all over the reserve, pretending to be characters from Star Trek, checking out suspects in the crime against his mother, but also permanently hungry and looking for the next "grandma" who will have enough food for all four of them.

Comic and endearing

There’s a comic and endearing quality to Joe and Erdrich admits she loved seeing through his eyes.  But what he’s facing is a dark and thorny problem for which there is no clear solution.  The crime has completely altered his strong, capable parents and when Geraldine is finally able  to talk, he learns the man who committed the crime is white and may also have murdered another woman.  Here is where the overlapping legal jurisdictions get in the way. The crime may have been on reserve land, but a white man cannot be prosecuted in the tribal justice system. And since it’s unknown whether it was commited on state or federal land, white justice systems are reluctant to hold the rapist and he’s soon out, moving freely through the community.


The Round House is told in the voice of 13-year-old Joe. (HarperCollins Canada)

"This particular set of laws on reservations makes getting justice more difficult. I think [rape] could happen anywhere, but on a reservation it’s even more difficult," Erdrich says.

As she thought about this book, Erdrich was researching sexual attitudes toward native women, trafficking of native women and tragic real-life stories such as British Columbia’s Highway of Tears and the disappearances of native women in Vancouver and Winnipeg.

"I do know and feel that the attitude toward native women and the trafficking of native women and the hysterical innate sense that somehow native women are more sexually available is really exploited – it’s part of Canadian culture as well," she said.

Attitudes toward rape are a concern, not just for native women, but for all women. Erdrich points to the current U.S. Senate race, with a candidate who describes rape as ‘legitimate’ and another who says God intended any pregnancy that results from rape, as proof of the ignorance that surrounds the subject.

Rape and the U.S. election

"I can’t believe this election is so close given that our candidates on the right want to change the Supreme Court in order to take away a woman’s right to choose and not allow choice even in cases of incest and rape with the excuse that God must have intended this baby to happen," she said.

The Round House is full of strong women — from the ex-stripper Sonya, to Geraldine who is struggling valiantly to return to normal life, to the hilarious Grandma Ignatia, who discusses in anatomical detail the sexual prowess of her many husbands.

"I see the incredible resilience and endurance of First Nations and native women, the sense of humour, compassion.  I so respect the survival instincts that have kept women keeping their families alive for all these generations," Erdrich says.

One of the joys of The Round House is the portrayal of the reserve as a supportive community, even as it is beset with drugs and occasional violence.  Erdrich discovered she had breast cancer while writing The Round House and says that played into her sense of warm familial ties. The book is "filled with how people who love each other, try to protect each other and sometimes fail in the attempt, but that love is still there," she said. "The care my husband, my children, my parents showed me really resonates in this book because of the protectiveness this family has toward each other. I could see how children are tremendously protective. I could see that feeling."  

Anishnaabe stories   

The story of Joe’s search for justice is underpinned by traditional Anishnaabe stories — including the tales of the trickster Nanapush told to him by his grandfather or Mooshum.  There are also twins with different natures, a common theme in Erdrich’s writing and part of the original stories in Ojibwe culture. More sweeping and a key to understanding Erdrich’s ideas of traditional native justice is the concept of the wiindigoo, (or Wendigo as Margaret Atwood has called it), a person who has given way to evil.

"The wiindigoo really arises out of a human being’s way of being and thinking and it has to be contained and controlled by the people closest to that person," Erdrich said.  "Western justice can’t meet the demands of a reality of this kind. The traditional way of justice is the only way out."

Joe’s father is a tribal judge and has to have faith in the legal system. Joe is an impulsive teenager and determined to save his mother.  What he and his friends do and the price they must pay, is so true to character that it breaks your heart and yet is still unexpected.  Erdrich has woven a tight web of the many threads of story, transforming the every day and ordinary into a tale that packs a literary punch.  The Minneapolis-based author has been nominated for the National Book Award once before, for The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse in 2001. She’ll find out if she wins on Nov. 14 in New York.