Joe and his dad Bazil are a bit worried about Joe’s mom. She isn’t home on time and there’s no indication of where she’s gone off to. Worried enough that they borrow a car—she has theirs—and drive toward her office in the hope that she is working late.
So it’s a relief—so early in the novel!—when they see her driving in the opposite direction, on the road home. Oddly, she doesn’t see them, but they figure she is just in a hurry after realizing how late it is.
Relief turns to horror when Joe and Bazil arrive home to find Geraldine sitting in the car, white knuckling the steering wheel. Joe is thirteen and doesn’t immediately understand what’s happened to his mother. She has vomited all over herself and, in addition to the smell of the vomit, reeks of gasoline.
At the hospital, Joe learns what he has begun to suspect. His mother has been brutally raped. Her attacker then hoped to kill her by dousing her with gasoline and lighting her on fire.
Bazil is a tribal judge. He seeks to bring his wife’s attacker to justice. But in a perverse twist, we learn that this may not happen. This is 1988, and whether this crime will be prosecuted and by what branch of government depends on whether it occurred on tribal, state or federal property—and whether the rapist was Indian or white.
As justice is thwarted, Geraldine is more and more withdrawn, even refusing to leave her room. Her depression is deep, and its effects on Joe, her only child, are serious. The family’s life has been ruined. Joe wants some normalcy again. He decides to do his own investigating and brings some of his friends in on it, unable to understand the risks he is taking.
High school housekeeping: I recently read an article about how reading literary fiction can do wonders for the readers—improving character traits that non-literary fiction may not. It reminded me of this beautiful novel because The Round House was used in the study as the literary fiction that subjects read from. And I realized that I never reviewed it although I read it about a year ago and loved it. (The truth is, I love all of Erdrich’s books. Many have the same Ojibwa characters. If you want to read one of the most excellent books of your life, try The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.)
This book will interest teens who are fairly good readers. You’ll be engrossed by the story and the bit-of-a-shocker ending. You’ll delight your English teacher who also knows what this sort of book can do for you. If you need to read something and compare it to class/school required reading, you could do a bang up job putting this side-by-side with To Kill a Mockingbird. If you have an assignment that asks you to read fiction and then research factual events from the story, looking into the prosecution of rape cases on reservations would also make a great paper or project/report. In an afterword to the novel, Erdrich notes that the problem still exists—that “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime . . .; 86% of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.”