Conversation: Louise Erdrich on Her New Novel, ‘The Round House’

BY Jeffrey Brown  October 19, 2012 at 11:30 AM EDT


A woman is attacked, a family is altered forever, the only child — a 13-year-old boy — seeks to solve the mystery surrounding the crime. The dramatic outline of the new novel, “The Round House,” is further complicated by its setting on a reservation in North Dakota, where tribal law and ways clash with state and federal jurisdictions. Last week, “The Round House” was nominated for a National Book Award.

This is Louise Erdrich‘s 14th novel, many of them dealing with the complex legacy of Ojibwa French Indian and German settlers in the upper Midwest. Erdrich is also a poet and owner of Birchbark Books, an independent book store in Minneapolis.

In the video above, we talk about her novel, the complicated issues of sovereignty and the future of the novel. (Read the transcript below.)

In this video, Erdrich reads an excerpt for us:


JEFFREY BROWN: A woman is attacked, a family is altered forever, the only child, a 13-year-old boy, seeks to solve the mystery surrounding the crime. The dramatic outline of the new novel, “The Round House,” is further complicated by its setting on a reservation in North Dakota, where tribal law and ways clash with state and federal jurisdictions. This is author Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel, many of them dealing with the complex legacy of Ojibwa French Indian and German settlers in the upper Midwest. Erdrich is also a poet and owner of Birchbark Books, an independent book store in Minneapolis. “The Round House” has been nominated for a National Book Award. Congratulations on that, and welcome.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thank you very much. Thanks for inviting me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now this opens with a shattering violent experience. A quiet afternoon, father and son working together, and then they realize that the mother/wife is missing. Did it start that way for you in conceptualizing and writing the book, with that kind of experience?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I was really haunted for years by the background, the political background of this book, but I didn’t want to write a political diatribe of any sort. So I waited and waited to have some character come to me and speak to me. I knew once I’d written into this, when I got to those words, ‘”where is your mother,” I knew that this was the book. I knew I had the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: So if it started with this issue, then let’s explain the issue. It’s not giving away much of the novel to say there is this jurisdictional problem of law — who’s a native, who has jurisdiction over crimes. But what is it that you wanted to explore? Explain the problem.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, there is a legacy of violence against native women that has gotten worse and worse over time. Historically the underpinning lie in the complex nature of the land tenure on native reservations. Each piece of land had a different jurisdictional authority. There’s attempt to solve this. One of the most recent was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy of the senate judicial committee, and their recommendation was the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in 2012. So there have been attempts, but there is a kind of fear of restoring some pieces of sovereignty to native tribes. The statistics are that one in three native women are raped, about 67 percent of those rapes fall under federal jurisdiction and are not prosecuted. Something like 88 percent are believed to be committed by non-natives, and the tribes have no jurisdiction over non-natives. So part of the fix is to restore some sovereignty, some jurisdiction over non-native people only in these situations.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you saw this decidedly nonfiction huge problem

LOUISE ERDRICH: It’s a big tangle isn’t it. The way I’m explaining it, it’s like you start unraveling and it’s everywhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you had to find a way in as a novelist.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I had to find a way to go straight in, and Joe gave me the in with the innocence and heart. Well, he’s not all that innocent. He’s a 13-year-old kid, but he’s so protective of his mother and so ambivalent as a 13 year old about both his mother and his father, so he’s growing up in a tremendously short time over the course of a summer.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know in other of your works you like to have multiple voices sort of explaining the story. This one really is focused on this young 13-year-old Joe. Was that hard to get, that voice, right? And why did you decide to just focus it on one voice?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I didn’t really decide. It just happened to me. I was so interested in writing in his voice that it really took over. I feel now, that I see that book sitting at your elbow, that I sort of want it back. I want to be writing in that voice again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You want the book back.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I want the book back and I want Joe back. He was mine. Now he’s out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that always happen? I mean, you can’t have him, right? He’s ours, right?

LOUISE ERDRICH: You’ve got him but –

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that normal for you to feel after you’ve finished a book?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Somewhat, but in this case it’s very special because Joe just took me through this entire book. As you said, his voice is the major voice in the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now this sense of place, you know, I talk to a lot of writers and some have it and really feel it, and others, you know, they could be writing about any place. But with you it’s often a specific place and it’s often a culture that is otherwise not much written about in our culture. Is that important to you? Is that part of what you are doing? Or is that just where you are from and what you know?

LOUISE ERDRICH: It’s who I am. I grew up in Wahpeton, N.D., and I didn’t leave until I was 18 and I’ve kept going back. My parents still live in Wahpeton, my family works in the Indian health service in the school system, and North Dakota, really the Red River Valley specifically, and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation is really where I’m from and what I know, so that’s all I’m doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a sense, I mean, even the name “The Round House,” it is a sacred place on the reservation, and I’m wondering in writing about this culture is there a fear of losing some of those traditions? Losing that culture?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I think this is what is the heart of the book. The Round House is a sacred place on many reservations. There is a kiva, or there is a sweat lodge, round places, the tepee is round. You know, this the circle that depicts the turn of the earth itself and to have this violated does speak to the violation of the culture, but what I think happens and what I think the book talks about is also the resilience of the culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the book can help preserve it, I suppose, or at least let the rest of the culture know about it.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I’m hoping this particular issue becomes more widely understood. It’s very complicated.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want you to put your bookstore owner hat on for me, because it’s something we talk about –

LOUISE ERDRICH: That tattered old hat?

JEFFREY BROWN: Exactly, exactly. Is that how it feels? Because we talk a lot about the place of the book, the future of the book, the future of reading and especially now novels, and of course the future of the bookstore, so it feels from the outside like this must be sort of a quixotic endeavor nowadays. What does it feel like to you? Why do you do it?

LOUISE ERDRICH: It felt like in the beginning, it felt like I’d done something crazy, but as time has gone on the most wonderful people have begun to work at this bookstore. It’s as though the love of being around books has drawn people in. I have a wonderful manager, I mean, everybody there really loves this store, the work and just to be surrounded by books. There are people who are always, I think, going to remain people of the book, to use another author’s title, but people of the book, who really must be around. What I see in the book is an exquisite form of technology, one that doesn’t require a power source and can be passed from hand to hand and lasts a lot longer than
an electronic reader.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right the new book is “The Round House.” Louise Erdrich, thanks so much.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Pleasure.