By Chet Yarbrough
By Louise Erdrich
Narrated by Gary Farmer
Louise Erdrich, the author of “The Round House” grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
Erdrich’s parents, a Chippewa mother and German father, taught at the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” in Wahpeton. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and her husband was the director of “Native American Studies” at Dartmouth.
Though not an essential element of the story, Gary Dale Farmer is the narrator of “The Round House; he was born into the Cayuga nation, an Iroquois Confederacy.
This brief explanation of author and narrator gives context and authority to a significant cultural quality of “The Round House” which is a story about a rape but, more broadly, about life on an Indian reservation. The story symbolizes lives of poverty, cultural isolation, and discrimination that are amplified by an unjust American legal system.
As most Americans know, Indian Reservations have their own legal system; however, less well-known is that an outsider’s criminal behavior on a reservation is not subject to a Reservation’s legal system. In “The Round House”, when a misogynistic white man rapes the wife of a Reservation’ judge, he escapes conviction because of jurisdictional dispute over where the rape occurred. When the location is corroborated and confirmed, American’ law prohibits prosecution by Reservation authorities. The rapist is set free.
Many themes course through the story of “The Round House”; i.e. the horrendous psychological impact of rape on the entire family, the negative reinforcement of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and “escape from reality” caused by isolated communal living; and fundamentally, a human being’s recourse to vengeance when justice is not offered by a fair system of government.
History shows that isolation of a minority is inherently discriminatory; i.e. Brown vs. Board of Education is a legal proof of that belief. Jews in ghettos, Palestinians in the nation of Israel, Blacks and Hispanics in America, and other minorities wishing, wanting to retain their own identity, naturally, expect to be allowed to equally participate in their homelands’ prosperity. However, isolation of a minority mitigates against equal opportunity for all. “The Round House” shows how Reservation’ isolation leads a 13-year-old boy to consider murdering another human being because he sees no justice for his mother, the victim of a brutal rape.
The psychological impact of rape is crystalized in Erdrich’s writing; i.e. she pictures the fear felt by a raped mother, the helplessness of a husband and father, the loss by a son of his parent’s closeness. All in the family seem cast adrift in their own thoughts because their family bond has been brutally severed by the rapist.
An Indian Reservation is its own kind of ghetto with its own identity; its own habits; its own social fabric. A ghetto amplifies good and bad qualities of life. Erdrich suggests that alcohol consumption is common at age 13 on a Reservation; i.e. peer groups form on Reservations just as they do in all communities but in a culture of poverty, peer groups are drawn together by search for escape from reality rather than pursuit of happiness. Smoking pot, drinking, and sexual adventure are proportionately more common because they are convenient escapes from reality in a smaller universe.
Domestic abuse occurs in all societies but Erdrich infers that it becomes more pronounced in Indian Reservations because of poverty, injustice, and lack of opportunity. Women turn to sex as a means of survival but that strategy leads to prostitution, human trafficking, and abuse by husbands, lovers, and women haters.
Justice for the victim is the hope of one who reads or listens to “The Round House”–an interesting, enlightening, and well written book. One has to decide for themselves whether justice is served by the story’s ending. At the very least, a reader or listener will know more about living on an Indian Reservation; not to mention, the horrific consequence of rape.