Book reviews

And Justice for Some

In Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Round House, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts’s dad is a judge.  His mom works in the tribal registry office.  Joe’s father’s law books fill the living room shelves.  Joe has been raised to have a reverence for the rule of law.

The Sunday Joe’s mom is raped, Joe and his father are pulling up tree shoots.  The shoots have taken root beneath their home’s concrete foundation.  They have to be dug and pried and pulled out gently; taken out whole.  If a shoot breaks off, the root will gain an even stronger foothold. 

After his mom IDs her rapist, Joe expects the man to serve time for his crime. 

But Joe’s family lives in Indian country, the rapist is a white man, and Joe’s mom can’t say for sure if the rape happened on tribal land.  The non-tribal courts aren’t interested in pursuing the case.  The tribal courts lack the authority.  It looks like the rapist will go free.

As Joe learns about the limitations of tribal law and tribal sovereignty, he begins to rebel.  His father’s painstaking approach of winning back justice and sovereignty for Joe’s people incrementally, bit by bit and case by case, seems slow and ineffectual.  Meanwhile, Joe’s mooshum (grandfather) tells stories of Akii and Nanapush, ancestors who survived times that were even more unjust.  When the white man killed off the buffalo, and Joe’s ancestors faced starvation and the dissension and in-fighting that ate the tribe from within, Akii and Nanapush found a way to survive. 

Joe needs to find a way to survive, too.  For him that means finding justice.  Since the white man’s laws aren’t delivering it,  Joe will root out his mother’s rapist and treat him as mercilessly as he and his father treated the trees that threatened Joe’s family’s home.


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