In 'House,' Erdrich Sets Revenge On A Reservation

Oct 2, 2012

In 1988, 13-year-old Joe Coutts is thrust into adulthood after his mother, Geraldine Coutts, is sexually assaulted. His story is at the center of Louise Erdrich's latest novel, The Round House.

Erdrich is best known for crafting stories around people with one foot in and one foot out of Native American reservation life, and The Round House is no different. Joe and his family live on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, and his father is a tribal judge. In the book, Erdrich explores the complications that arise when tribal laws compete with federal laws in the search for justice.

She joins NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss the meaning of justice on a reservation, and what she's learned from writing about revenge.


Interview Highlights

On Joe Coutts

"He has been a normal kid up until the point where he knows that it's all on him, that this question that he asks himself has to be answered: Will he have to kill someone to save his mother? ... Joe wants to see himself as wild, as ferocious, but he continually actually looks at himself and sees that he is the kind of kid who helps his dad dig roots out of the foundation of the house, or carefully puts things together. He's not as wild as he thinks he is or wishes he was somehow."

On what drives Joe to seek his own justice

"[The assault] catapults him into an adulthood. He's not ready for this, but it throws him into a set of responsibilities that no 13-year-old should have to bear. And as the book goes on, as he sees that the adults cannot find justice, it becomes clear to him, and then it becomes clear to his best friend as well, that they may have to seek justice on their own."

On the difficulties of finding justice on Native American reservations

"There are several kinds of land on reservations. And all of these pieces of land have different entities who are in charge of enforcing laws on this land. So in this case, Geraldine Coutts does not know where her attacker raped her. She didn't see, she doesn't know. So in her case, it is very, very difficult to find justice because there's no clear entity who is in charge of seeking justice for her ...

"So in writing the book, the question was: If a tribal judge — someone who has spent his life in the law — cannot find justice for the woman he loves, where is justice? And the book is also about the legacy of generations of injustice, and what comes of that. Because, of course, what comes of that is an individual needs to seek justice in their own way when they can't find justice through the system. And that brings chaos."

On the theme of revenge in her work

"You know, I am learning something about [revenge], and I think it drew me to law and what its meaning is for Native American people. The law is the basis of existence in many ways because ... the original way tribal people were recognized was through treaties. So I've thought about it quite a lot, and why revenge is the only form of justice in some locations and in some terrible situations."

On the true nature of vengeance

"Revenge is a sorrow for the person who has to take it on. And the person who is rash enough to think it's going to help a situation is always wrong."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The latest novel from the author Louise Erdrich is a not-so-typical coming of age story. It's called "The Round House," and it takes place in the 1980s. And it's all about Joe Coutts. At first, Joe's your average 13-year-old kid - worried about having the coolest sneakers, and reciting lines from his favorite sci-fi TV show with his friends. But Joe's world is turned upside down when his mom, Geraldine, is attacked and raped; as described in this scene from the novel, when Joe sees her for the first time at the hospital.

LOUISE ERDRICH: (Reading) Now, I saw my mother's face, puffed with welts and distorted to an ugly shape. She peered through slits in the swollen flesh of her lids. What happened? I asked stupidly. She didn't answer. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She blotted them away with a gauze-wrapped fist. I'm all right, Joe. Look at me. I'm all right, see? And I looked at her, but she was not all right.

CORNISH: And because she's not all right, and because Joe will do anything for her, Joe grows up - fast. For decades, Louise Erdrich has chronicled life on American Indian reservations. "The Round House" takes place among a tight-knit community of Ojibwe, in North Dakota. And in this story, a complicated legal system sets the scene for the drama after Joe's mother is attacked, as Erdrich explained to us recently.

ERDRICH: This catapults him into an adulthood. He's not ready for this, but it throws him into a set of responsibilities that no 13-year-old should have to bear. And as the book goes on, as he sees that the adults cannot find justice, it becomes clear to him - and then it becomes clear to his best friend, as well - that they may have to seek justice on their own.

CORNISH: To talk more about what stymies the adults in this story from seeking justice, give us an idea of what was happening in the late '80s, that made it difficult for victims of sexual assault on reservations to seek justice; because in the early pages, you know, one of Geraldine's - one of her husband's first questions, is not necessarily who had done this to her, but where.

ERDRICH: Well, there are several kinds of land on reservations. And all of these pieces of land have different entities who are in charge of enforcing laws on this land. So, in this case, Geraldine Coutts does not know where her attacker raped her. She didn't see; she doesn't know. So in her case, it is very, very difficult to find justice because there's no clear entity who is in charge of seeking justice for her.

CORNISH: And it makes it all the more painful, of course, because her husband is a tribal judge. He's intimate with the law.

ERDRICH: Exactly, exactly. So in writing the book, the question was: If a tribal judge - someone who has spent his life in the law - cannot find justice for the woman he loves, where is justice? And the book is also about the legacy of generations of injustice, and what comes of that. Because, of course, what comes of that is, an individual needs to seek justice in their own way, when they can't find justice through the system. And that brings chaos.

CORNISH: And the question of revenge is a topic that you've come back to repeatedly, over the years, in your work. And I didn't know what draws you to it, and-or what you're learning about it, as you write.

ERDRICH: Well, thanks for that question. You know, I am learning something about it. And I think it drew me to - to law, and what its meaning is for Native American people. The law is the basis of existence, in many ways, because reservations - and even our status within the United States - makes us legal entities because the original way tribal people were recognized, was through treaties. So I've thought about it quite a lot; and why revenge is the only form of justice in some locations, and in some terrible situations.

CORNISH: Though I feel, looking at your work, that the answer is that it's not entirely as satisfying as one might think, once you've gotten that revenge.

ERDRICH: Revenge?

CORNISH: Yeah.

ERDRICH: No, I - revenge is a sorrow for the person who has to take it on. And the person who is rash enough to think it's going to help a situation, is always wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Louise Erdrich, speaking about her new novel. It's called "The Round House." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.