New Erdrich Novel Deals With Crime and Jurisdiction on North Dakota Reservation

October 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Novelist Louise Erdrich examines what happens when crimes are committed on Native American reservations, a decidedly non-fictional problem, through the eyes of her fictional protagonist, a 13-year-old boy named Joe. Jeff Brown talks to Erdrich about her novel "The Round House," set on the N.D. reservation of the Ojibwe tribe.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a woman is attacked and the life of her 13-year-old son, Joe, is altered forever, along with his family. That’s the dramatic outline of the new novel “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich, which has been nominated for a National Book Award.

The story is set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, and it explores clashes of culture and law between tribal and state jurisdictions in investigating a crime.

I talked with Louise Erdrich recently and asked her first how she came to write the book.

LOUISE ERDRICH, author of “The Round House”: 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 about this situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, if it started with this issue, then let’s explain the issue, because — and it’s not giving away much of the novel to say there is this jurisdictional problem, right, of law, who’s a native, who has jurisdiction over crimes.

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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.

And, historically, the underpinnings lie in the complex nature of the land tenure on Native reservations. Each piece of land has a different jurisdictional authority. A lot of this — there’s attempts to solve this.

One of the most recent was sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy of the Senate Judicial Committee, and their recommendation was termed 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. And 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, this it started with this issue, a political issue.

LOUISE ERDRICH: It started with the background, but I didn’t know who was going to talk to me.

And I was digging little trees out of the foundation of my own parents’ house. And as I drove away and left, this voice started to talk to me. And I knew once I had 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 you saw this decidedly nonfiction huge problem?

LOUISE ERDRICH: It’s a big tangle, isn’t it?


LOUISE ERDRICH: The way I’m explaining it, it’s like you — you start unraveling, and it’s everywhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. 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: Yes. 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. But I loved writing…


JEFFREY BROWN: Does that always happen? I mean, you can’t have him, right? This is 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 have 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 RiverValley specifically and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation, is really where I’m from, so — 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.


JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m wondering, in writing about this culture, is there a fear of losing some of those traditions, losing that culture?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, 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 gets — is — becomes more widely understood. It’s very complicated.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right the new book is “The Round House.”

Louise Erdrich, thanks so much.