Study Guide and Discussion Questions on The Round House
(The directions for the questions you have to answer in writing can be found on pages 4 and 6.)
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The Burden of Justice: Louise Erdrich Talks About ‘The Round House’
By JOHN WILLIAMS
OCTOBER 24, 2012 12:09 PM October 24, 2012 12:09 pm 9 Comments
Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel, “The Round House,” was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s set on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that is so familiar to her readers, and it tells the story of Joe, a 13-year-old who seeks justice after his mother is brutally attacked. In her review, Michiko Kakutani wrotethat the novel “opens out to become a detective story and a coming-of-age story, a story about how Joe is initiated into the sadnesses and disillusionments of grown-up life and the somber realities of his people’s history.” In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. Erdrich discussed the difficulty of obtaining justice on reservations, the influence of her father on her fiction and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:
In The New York Times Book Review, Maria Russo said this book represented a departure because your novels “have usually relied on a rotating cast of narrators, a kind of storytelling chorus.” There’s a fairly large cast of characters in the book, so why did you decide to have Joe narrate the whole thing?
In order to write a novel about jurisdictional issues on American Indian reservations — without falling asleep — I decided to try a character-driven suspense narrative. Personally, I always envied and wanted the freedom that boys have. I get a kick out of 13-year-old boys I know. Also, as this is a book of memory, I am able to add the resonance of Joe’s maturity.
It’s hard as a reader not to share Joe’s desire for revenge on the man who attacked his mother. Do you think he’s ultimately wrong to pursue it?
Wrong or right, for many families this is the only option when justice is unobtainable. I wanted the reader to understand what taking on that burden is like. On any state elections map, the reservations are blue places. Native people are most often progressives, Democrats, and by no means gun-toting vigilantes. Being forced into this corner is obviously an agonizing decision.
The novel’s plot partly revolves around the problem of jurisdiction that keeps some brutal crimes on tribal land from being efficiently investigated and tried. Has there been any progress in fixing that problem?
President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law in 2010 — it was an important moment of recognition. More recently the Senate Judiciary Committee crafted a helpful piece of legislation. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 would have given tribal nations limited jurisdiction over sexual predators regardless of race. Right now tribal courts can only prosecute tribal members. The problem is that over 80% of the perpetrators of rapes on reservations are non-Native. Most are not prosecuted. The bill went forward only to stall in the House, blocked by Republican votes. Hate to say it, but that one’s on them.
In your “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review, you said, “My father is my biggest literary influence.” Where do you feel his presence most in “The Round House”
My father is the sort of man who would have spoken a monologue like one that Judge Coutts [Joe’s father] speaks in the novel, which includes a gundog on Dealey Plaza, a flagpole sitter, the Ojibwe clan system, the Orthian chanted by Arion of Methymna before he was cast into the sea, and Metis fiddle playing. He is also famous for a frightful stew like the one that appears in this book. My father created the pot of stew while my mother was in the hospital recovering from the birth of one of my sisters. He kept adding various elements to the stew all week — just heating it up in the same pot. That last sentence is beginning to sound like a book metaphor, so here I’ll stop.
At a panel that was part of The New Yorker Festival a couple of weeks ago, discussing the general lack of strong marriages in fiction, Lorrie Moore said she felt the marital life of Joe’s parents was a central part of “The Round House.” Do you agree that contemporary fiction is lacking portraits of strong marriages? And how central to you was the marriage in this book when you were planning and writing it?
My parents’ marriage is a gift to everyone around them — 60 years of making their kids laugh. How many parents are actually funny? It isn’t easy to write a happy marriage (Tolstoy’s dictum). So of course the only way to write about a happy marriage is to have a malevolent outside force attempt to destroy it.
The North Dakota Ojibwe reservation in your novels has frequently been compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County for its scope and variety of characters. Have you been directly influenced or inspired by Faulkner?
Most writers have been influenced by Faulkner.
How do you keep track of the characters you’ve created in this world? Are there genealogical charts hanging on your walls?
I love this question because I can mention Trent Duffy, the best copy editor in New York. Trent has meticulously cataloged and recorded each character’s family tree as well as all of their habits and the color of their hair, eyes, nail polish, etc. For myself, I have only messy notebooks and bits of hotel notepads jammed up with ideas.
“The Round House” is a sequel of sorts to “Plague of Doves,”which also revolves around a violent crime, and I’ve read that there’s a third related book planned. Will the third book deal with similar themes of violence and justice?
Talking about how I might write the next book is like talking about whether or not to have sex. Any dithering ruins it.
Discussion Questions on
Louise Erdrich, The Round House
Carefully read through and think about all of these issues. However, I would like you to write a responses to FOUR of these questions. Each response should be at least a full paragraph and you should include quotations from the novel to back up your points.
What can you discover about when and where the book was set? What can we learn about life on this reservation just from reading the novel? Include both major points and minor details. What difference does the setting (both time and place) make to our understanding of the novel? Is it incidental or does it have a major impact? (One way to answer this question is to imagine what the novel would have been like if set somewhere else, say, in southern California or a Minneapolis suburb, or Paris, France.)
2. Indian/White Relations
What can you learn about the way the Native Americans and the whites relate each other? Refer to specific passages which shed light on the relationship between these groups of people.
3. Narrative Point of View
This novel is told from the perspective of an adult male looking back to the time when he was a 13-year-old boy. What is the significance of it being told from a 13- year-old’s-perspective? How does the author combine both the adult and the adolescent viewpoint? To what effect? Find specific passages that illustrate how the point of view makes a difference to the story.
What are some of the similarities between The Round House and Peace Like a River?
5. Character of Joe
What do we know about Joe, both before the attack and afterwards? Find two or three passages that illustrate an aspect of his character.
6. Character of Joe’s Dad
What do we know about Joe’s dad, both before the attack and afterwards? Find two or three passages that illustrate aspects of his character.
7. Character of Geraldine (Joe’s mom)
What do we know about Geraldine, both before the attack and afterwards? Find two or three passages that illustrate an aspect of her character.
8. Joe’s friends
Name and provide a brief description of Joe’s best buddies. Why do you think so much attention is given to them in this novel? How do they contribute to the overall understanding of the novel?
9. Motif: Akiikwe, Earth Woman
You’ll notice that Mooshum tells the fairly lengthy story of Akiikwe (Earth Woman), her son Nanapush, and their relationship to Buffalo Woman. This story gives us the background of how the Round House came to be. In what other ways is this mythic tale important to the novel? How does it relate thematically to other elements of the novel, especially issues of male-female relationships and justice?
10. Symbolism: The Round House
Think about why the title of the novel is The Round House. Yes, the crime took place there, but in what other ways is the Round House significant to the story? What does it represent?
11. Theme: Male-female relationships
The main story line of The Round House is obviously Joe’s quest for justice for his mother’s rape. However, you will notice other sub-plots as well, including the “love” triangle of Sonja, Whitey and Joe as well as the “love” triangle of Linden Lark, Mayla Wolfskin and Curtis Yeltow. What do these different relationships have in common with each other?
17. Exploring themes: Race, politics, sexual relationships, gender, injustice, religion, superstition, magic, and the boundary between childhood and adulthood are explored in The Round House. Choose a theme or two and trace how it is demonstrated in a character's life throughout the novel. 18.Legal Issues: Given all of the injustices his people have faced, why is Bazil (Joe’s father) so intent on making sure he follows the law? How, then, in the end, does he find a way to justify Joe’s actions?
Read through and think about both of these questions, but answer ONE of them in a short essay.
1. The title of this book is The Round House, which emphasizes the importance of this structure. On the most obvious level, the crime against Geraldine occurs near there and then inside it. Additionally, however, we learn more about the symbolic significance of the Round House through the stories told by Mooshum about Nanapush and his mother Akiikwe, Earth Woman. This embedded narrative begins on page 179 and ends on page 215 with this passage spoken by the old female buffalo:
Your people were brought together by us buffalo once. You knew how to hunt and use us. Your clans gave you laws. You had many rules by which you operated. Rules that respected us and forced you to work together. Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart. It will be the body of your mother and it must be respected the same way. As the mother is intent on her baby’s life, so your people should think of their children.
That is how it [the round house] came about, said Mooshum. I was a young man when the people built it—they followed Nanapush’s instructions. (214-215)
Write down the story of Akiikwe and Nanapush so that you will be able to remember what happens. Include the concept of wiindigoog in your answer and how it relates to the round house story.
Then discuss how this embedded narrative contributes to the larger meaning of The Round House.
2. Notice that many of the embedded narratives are about relationships between men and women. The story of Akiikwe and her husband (mentioned above) is one example. Another one is the story of Sonja, Whitey, and Joe’s crush on Sonja. This story climaxes on page 223 when Sonja says to Joe: “I thought of you like my son. But you just turned into another piece a shit guy. Another gimme-gimme asshole, Joe. That’s all you are.” Jot down the gist of this Sonja-Whitey-Joe story here.