The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America. (Wikipedia)
With this specific book they have recognized an author bringing attention to discriminatory, prejudicial, and unjust laws regarding US Indians/Native Americans. In addition, this is an indictment against the seemingly ever-evasive policies and laws which overlook, ignore, and even prohibit true justice being meted out to perpetrators, dependent upon their skin color and cultural heritage, of course! In other words, the bad deeds of white men could still be 'swept under the rug' with little fear of prosecution and virtually none of conviction, due to a court decision that "took from [the Indians] the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on [their] land." So, the US courts take their land and then make sure any white man can do anything he wishes with no fear of prosecution on that same land. A perfect example of oppression. Nice, really nice...NOT!
The reader learns how and why the Round House was first built and used, as well as other folklore and history that has established the present-day reservation and the people currently living on that reservation. Erdrich's skill at divulging information in bits and pieces about the future as well as the past is unparalleled, in my opinion. There are some fantastical elements: Mooshum's "talking in his sleep," revealing what appear to be 'random' stories; Joe's ability to KNOW what happened with the gas can and its location; the 'coincidental' discovery of a doll in the water. In the aftermath of reading this book, so much information kept re-entering my mind for further consideration, yet it all flows together seamlessly as part of one big story. The irony of the opening scene pervades throughout the book and eventually wraps the story up tightly, coming "full circle," as they say...just as ROUND as that ROUND House. I have spent many hours in the past weeding and pulling seedlings from the soil just as Joe was doing, and it can be just as meditative as he described it to be...
I love the macro and micro demonstrations of the law contained herein. Regarding the American Indians/Native Americans:
...our treaties with the government were like treaties with foreign nations. That
the grandeur and power that my Mooshum talked about wasn't entirely lost, as it
was, at least to some degree I meant to know, still protected by the law. (2)
Mooshum is how Joe refers to his grandfather. Yet later in the book, Joe's father, Bazil, allows him to help review case files, looking for clues, and Joe is appalled at the seemingly inane issues on which his father has ruled--no big-time murder cases, no earth-shattering precedents set, just trivial issues and disputes resolved. Joe's vision of his father is altered by knowledge of this mundane reality, though Bazil iterates that he does whatever he can to whittle away at the overarching unjust policies and laws, in his own way every day. And that is one of the bigger themes of this book--do whatever you can do for good. (Though some may argue Cappy and Joe's crimes were NOT good...I would disagree--in this case there were virtually no options available to attain true peace.)
I loved this explanation once they realized Joe's mother had been gone too long:
Women don't realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We
absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our
pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting on my
mother to start us ticking away on the evening.
And so, you see, her absence stopped time. (3)
Now that passage was superbly written, wasn't it? :)
And obviously, Joe's father and I have much in common as parents:
...Your mother was attacked. [...]
Attacked? Attacked by who?
[As I'm reading I immediately think to myself "whom," not "who"!]
Absurdly, we both realized that my father's usual response would have been to
correct my grammar. We looked at each other and he said nothing. (11)
I resonated so strongly with this; what a unique yet effective way to demonstrate how 'out of sync' these two were without their wife/mother. I loved the way Bazil did not dismiss Joe's belief he saw a ghost, rather discussing others' opinions, experiences, and advice regarding their own ghosts. I personally believe there are other forms of 'being' in this world which most of us cannot yet perceive.
I could understand the way Joe and his friends related all life's activities to a TV show--my best friends and I did the same with the original Star Trek TV series as pre-teens! Speaking of pre-teens, Joe's adolescent thoughts:
Sonja was her name, and I liked her the way a boy likes his aunt, but I felt
differently about her breasts--on them I had a hopeless crush. (24)
I had to chuckle in spite of myself! Joe was an only child born to older parents who were often assumed to be his grandparents by others, hence he seemed overall to be more serious than not...except when it came to Sonja...and her body. Though this yearning leads to more 'exposure' than he was prepared for and for which I believe he always felt much regret ever afterward. I was a bit surprised by Joe's complicity in Cappy's runaway incident, although these children had access to automobiles way before the age of 16! And when you're young, temptation can emit an irresistible pull at times! Perhaps they felt doubly invincible, considering what they'd just accomplished. Erdrich doesn't hold back on the idea of adolescents having sex, either. For me, such realism helped to ground the story.
Erdrich sneaks in some additional political tidbits. In discussing the criteria for being officially enrolled as an Indian:
On the other hand, Indians know other Indians without the need for a federal
pedigree, and this knowledge--like love, sex, or having or not having a baby--has
nothing to do with government. (30)
Ooohhh...zing!! A bit of women's rights slipped in there! :) And I did find some humor in the irony of the one character who represented 'organized religion'--I do believe he was a bit of a psycho, though he had obviously endured much pain and was perhaps more a product of being a social outcast as a result of his injuries and/or PTSD than anything else.
Joe does eventually learn of further evidence which may have allowed some justice to be served, though probably not...so he feels vindicated in having provided safety and security for his family by facilitating his own 'justice.' I could appreciate the fact that so many people obviously colluded to keep secret what really happened to Linden on the golf course, including his own biological twin, who regretted having allowed him to live into adulthood. And poor Linda! She was a sympathetic character if ever there was one, though as she confesses, she felt she was the one spared the poison of her biological mother. This was another underlying theme I sensed, perhaps more than read, the idea of nature vs. nurture in the creation of an adult personality.
This was such an intensely powerful story with so much information, yet so very readable and intriguing! I can't imagine Erdrich's other books wouldn't be just as enjoyable. I hope to find out! How about you? Have you read this one? Or any of her other books? I was totally enthralled and am certain I'll ponder various aspects of this book for months, perhaps even years, to come. Great job, Ms. Erdrich! :)