Joe Coutts is an unremarkable teenage boy. He and his buddies bike around their North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, sneak beer and smokes when their parents aren’t looking, help out at a cousin’s sweat lodge to earn extra money, and religiously watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, identifying heavily with steely Klingon warrior Worf. They fight and tease each other (Joe’s nickname is Oops, a result of his birth being a pleasant late-life surprise), but above all they’ve got each other’s backs. So when Joe’s mom Geraldine is brutally raped and doused with lighter fluid in an attempted cover-up, but manages to escape, Joe and his friends don’t need words to form their plan. In short order, they piece together the details of the crime by eavesdropping on elders, bike to the site of the attack to comb for missing clues, figure out who committed the assault, and bring that person to justice.
The Round House is exceptional storytelling. Taking place during one hot summer in 1988, the story weaves together the reservation’s history of familial and political battles — babies adopted into warring factions, Catholic priests banning Native ceremonies, the dissonance between reservation dwellers and residents in surrounding cities — and the present, following the Coutts family in its grief. Louise Erdrich reads from her latest novel, second in a trilogy that began with Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves, at Peralta Elementary School (460 63rd St., Oakland) on Wednesday, October 17.
The book isn’t just a whodunit; it also highlights the devastating effects of violence. “An attack of sexual violence is a crime that affects the entire family,” Erdrich said. “For a young person like Joe, it really defines his life; it’s so much about what will be for the rest of his life.” The story is told in flashback by Joe, as he reflects (with some regret) upon the actions of a young, idealistic boy who would not take no for an answer — from his father and uncles trying to keep him away from the increasingly complicated proceedings around the assault, to the FBI, local, and tribal law enforcement haggling over whose land the crime was committed on, and the ethnicity of the attacker. These questions, Erdrich points out, more than the facts of the assault, are noteworthy as loopholes in the law that leave Native women with few legal options if they are assaulted on tribal land. When non-Native men perpetrate the crimes, few are ever prosecuted.
Erdrich’s trilogy, to be continued, is rooted in how injustice works through the generations. Tribal and US governments are still working to get the Tribal Law and Order Act signed into a bill that would restore power to tribal courts, enabling them to try non-Natives for crimes against Natives. Erdrich believes that “there is a damage that’s passed down from generation to generation, and the difficulty lies in defining and healing from that. So partly what the book refers to is the legacy that has been left by injustice in the past, and of course this act of injustice … I think that speaks for itself.” 7:30 p.m., $5, applicable toward book purchase. Sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com