Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Did the Book Club Think of Louise Erdrich's "The Round House"?

Like most other Louise Erdrich novels, I put The Round House on my “maybe I’ll read this” pile. In the days of buying for Schwartz, my excuse was that there was always another bookseller that wanted to read the advance copy or two that came into the buying office. I don’t know what my excuse is now—there are just enough time as a bookseller to read everything. I guess everyone can say that, right?

I also have a lot of strong memories selling Erdrich’s title, but several stand out. For some reason, when I think of The Beet Queen, I think of the old Book Nook in Whitefish Bay. Her publisher did a major commercial push for that novel, following her National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine. For The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, I think of the Brookfield Schwartz, where we had a particularly strong sale.It was an unusual novel for Erdrich, as it explored the German side of her heritage.

Whatever the numbers in the past, if you exclude past events with Erdrich at the Schwartz bookshops, our hardcover numbers for The Round House are probably better than any single location ever had previously for an Erdrich book, excluding any possible events we had. So now the book was not just a release, it was a phenomenon. It continued to gnaw at me that I hadn't read it. (Photo at right credit Paul Emmel.)

Problem solved, as we read The Round House for our in-store lit group for December. I knew a bit about the book going in, of course, and knew that Erdrich had chosen to write a book using more of the form of a suspense novel. According to interviews, this led her to adjust her normal structure, writing from one person’s perspective, the adolescent Joe Coutts, instead of her favored round-robin storytelling. But what I didn’t catch is that the book is in a sort of informal cycle, starting with A Plague of Doves, where Joe’s father, Judge Bazil Coutts, also makes an appearance.

You probably know the setup, though as a thriller, one has to be more careful not to give things away. I think I’m going to write “spoiler alert” here, just in case, even though I’m going to try to avoid spoiling. The story starts with Joe’s mom physically and sexually assaulted by a stranger. The details are vague because Geraldine is in shock, and more than that, she’s prevented from seeing her attacker.

Because the attack takes place in an area that tribal state, and private lands meet, and Geraldine doesn't actually know where she was attacked, it becomes a challenge to prosecute the case, let alone figure out who has the jurisdiction to find the attacker. And that’s when Joe, with the help of his friends, try to take the case into their own hands.

So how did the book club go? N and J were the most enthusiastic of the bunch, though one of the C.’s, who did not attend, told me beforehand this was among the best books we’d read to date. One of my questions was how would a reader of mysteries like the book, being that it’s a genre that Erdrich hasn’t written in before, and knowing that C, an avid reader of mystery/suspense, really enjoyed it said something about her success. Even before the National Book Award came, the book was selling at a faster pace than I'd seen in a while, and that was likely in part due to the pacing.

One reason why Erdrich is always an interesting read is that she gives insights into reservation life. For the readers like G and C2 who’ve read a lot of Native American writers, they’d felt that previous books they’d read focused on struggling Indians, while Erdrich’s newest really focused on a middle class family. L thought that the book made assumptions about what she knew, and found it difficult to get through certain sections as a result. We discussed several other Native writers worth reading, like Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and David Treuer.

Most of the attendees really liked the scenes with Joe and his friends, and noted that this could have been any group of kids, not just ones on a reservation. A couple of folks pictured them being more like 15 than 13, so the question was were these kids growing up faster in this environment, or did we not simply know how kids of this age acted or was this a critique of the book? The question was argued out and completely not settled.

G mentioned that when she was younger, she was in discussion to adopt a Native American child, something that would probably not happen today. But it tied in to one of the plot points of the story, where Linda was rejected by her White family and informally adopted by a Native American one, and later on, the White family tried to take the Native family’s land which Linda was allowed to live on (as well as something else of Linda’s, which I actually found to be one of the funnier scenes in the book).

We had a good talk about Native religion and Christianity and how the two played against each other in the story. J had previously heard about how the religions would intertwine but nobody had ever spelled it out to her as well as Erdrich. N had noted that Catholicism seemed like a particularly elastic religion that had long appropriated all sorts of traditional cultural practices into the religion, unlike some of the more rigid Protestant denominations. We all liked when the boys called Zelia (the object of attention of one of Joe's friends who is part of a mission to bring Christianity to the reservation) on her lack of knowledge about her own background. Being Mexican and relatively dark, she clearly had a good percentage of Native blood in her.

Another spirited discussion was over the justice taken in The Round House, and this is where the spoiler alert really kicks in. None of had any qualms about the justice taken in the story, but I wondered why that was. Did we all believe in vigilante justice? What exactly was our stand on capital punishment? I think to make her point, Erdrich had to make one sacrifice by making her villain completely and unambiguously villainous. If there had been a dog, he would have had to kick it. I think this was for two reasons. The first is that moral ambiguity is less apart of the suspense novel. And secondly, other points in the story would be harder to make if we had any identification with the character whatsoever.

We also had an argument about the ending. Much like for The Absolutist, the question was brought up as to why a final plot development happened after the story had been wrapped up. I am not going to get more detailed because I can’t even use an adjective without falling into spoiler territory.

Most of us wound up liking The Round House, but there was a range from mild enjoyment to intense enthusiasm. I was sort of disappointed that the folks who were less positive on the book were not particularly vocal. I wouldn't have minded a little more voicing of disagreement, but sometimes it can be tougher when a book is as lauded as Erdrich's.

And since we were speaking of Catholicism, I should note that next month we’re discussing Liam Callanan’s All Saints, focusing on a theology teacher at a Catholic high school. Mark your calendar for Monday, January 6, 7 pm.

Our February meeting is for Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Her acclaimed novel arrives in paperback on December 31 and our meeting is Monday, February 3, 7 pm.

I actually have our book selections mapped out through May, though I reserve the right to make adjustments. March is Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, April is Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and May is Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings. It's not too early to mention that Wolitzer is visiting Boswell on April 24. We'll be discussing the book in the first week of May, but I'm enouraging folks to read the book a bit early and get a bit more out of the talk.

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