"The Round House." By Louise Erdrich. Harper. 336 pages. $26.99.
MIAMI -- Louise Erdrich's territory encompasses a wide swath of familiar terrain. Her wonderful novels, linked by time and place, examine the bitter lessons of history, the cost of treachery and vengeance, the balm of love and humor, the cultural legacies of brown people and white people and those whose mixed heritage can't quite define them. She revisits this land once again in her moving 14th novel, a grimly focused work about a family and community rocked by a brutal crime.
"The Round House" is a coming-of-age story, but it also has elements of a mystery. Set on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, as most of Erdrich's books are, it is narrated by Joe Coutts, who was 13 in 1988 when the story takes place. Joe is telling his tale as an adult, mulling over the events that shaped his life and those of his parents and friends.
What happened in 1988 is this: Joe's usually reliable mother, Geraldine -- a tribal enrollment specialist, the "head of a department of one" -- tells him she's going to pick up a folder at her office. Hours later, she hasn't returned. He and his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, go out looking for her. Eventually they return to find her parked in front of their house in a state of shock.
"He put his hands on hers and carefully pried her fingers off the steering wheel. ... There was vomit down the front of her dress and, soaking her skirt and soaking the gray cloth of the car seat, her dark blood." Even more disturbing to Joe, who refuses to leave his mother's side: "The strong smell arose from her, the vomit and something else, like gas or kerosene."
Geraldine has been attacked, raped and almost set afire, and the aftermath of her ordeal sends her burrowing under the covers in a darkened room, withdrawing from her family. Jurisdictional red tape stalls the investigation -- was the crime committed on state or Indian land? Geraldine, traumatized, can't say. Joe understands the importance of this matter: "I already knew, too, that these questions would not change the facts. But they would inevitably change the way we sought justice." He's the son of a judge, after all. And Ojibwe. And so he decides that he will enlist his best friends to help him track down her attacker.
His friends are no better equipped to hunt criminals than Joe is. They are boys who move easily between the old and new worlds. They're in touch with the mystical side of being Ojibwe (they can help prepare a sweat lodge), but they're well-versed in popular culture too. They swear by "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which they can watch because someone's aunt won a fancy TV set at bingo and the boys have "MacGyvered some old equipment" to act as a satellite.
The sci-fi series becomes an unbreakable bond: "[B]ecause of this show we set ourselves apart. We made drawings, cartoons, and even tried to write an episode. We pretended we had special knowledge. We were starting to get our growth and were anxious about how we'd turn out. In TNG, we weren't skinny, picked on, poor, motherless or scared. We were cool because no one else knew what we were talking about."
The tone of "The Round House" is overwhelmingly sober: The strain on Joe's family grows as time passes, and bleak events follow his mother's attack. But Erdrich understands the value of comic relief, and she provides humor through Joe's aged but spirited storytelling grandfather, Mooshum and the raunchy Grandma Thunder. Around her, the usually crude boys have to watch what they say; some words are flammable. ("Don't even mention cats," they warn each other.)
Joe, a lucky boy "doted on by women," may be one of Erdrich's best-drawn characters; he's conflicted, feisty one moment, scared and disappointed the next. "The Round House" will inevitably draw comparisons to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," but Joe is no Scout Finch-like observer. He's an older, more involved participant, shaped by his culture and influenced by ideas of justice from the warriors of Ojibwe legend -- or, let's be honest, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
He's also deeply disillusioned with his father when he learns how little legal power Bazil actually possesses. "I had imagined that my father decided great questions of the law, that he worked on treaty rights, land restoration, that he looked murderers in the eye, that he frowned when witnesses stuttered and silenced clever lawyers with a slice of irony." Instead, "My father was punishing hot dog thieves and examining washers -- not even washing machines -- just washers worth 15 cents apiece."
It's a hard but common realization that drives Joe right out of childhood and into choosing whether to break the law in the name of righteousness and revenge.
We all want justice, but at what price? That Joe does not come to the answer easily is a testament to Erdrich's compassionate understanding of the human heart.