Thursday, November 15, 2012

A literary prize for Erdrich—at last

Louise Erdrich has won the National Book Award in fiction for The Round House, her thirteenth novel. (My Commentary review of it is here.)

Based on the contentious case of William Janklow, two-time Republican governor of South Dakota who was accused of raping his children’s babysitter at gunpoint in 1967, The Round House starts off promisingly as a thriller. The narrator is the twelve-year-old son of an Ojibwe woman who is raped at the tribe’s round house. Joe (called Oops in the novel’s opening pages and then rarely again) sets himself to finding the rapist. But the reader figures out his identity before Joe does, and the legal issue bogs down in a question of jurisdiction.

Erdrich is outraged that jurisdictional issues prevent the rapists of Indian women from being prosecuted. “This is a book about a huge case of injustice ongoing on reservations,” she told the audience at the awards ceremony, held at the swank Cipriani restaurant in New York last night. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that no sense of outrage sneaks into the novel. The narrative voice prefers the dulcet to the angry, the familiar routines of literary modernism to the harder work of keeping outrage in check while blasting injustice.

The characters in The Round House first appeared in Erdrich’s Plague of Doves, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that went instead to Elizabeth Strout for Olive Kitteridge. One of the two narrators of the 2008 novel, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts (appearing in the sequel without his first name), is Joe’s father and the husband of Geraldine, the tribal enrollment specialist who is raped by a man with a racist grudge against Indians. This habit of recycling characters and returning to story lines is characteristic of Erdrich. And in fact, Joe reveals in the closing pages of The Round House that, now an adult, he has married the daughter of the family in Love Medicine, Erdrich’s famous first novel from 1984.

After a career of nearly thirty years, Louise Erdrich deserved to win a major literary prize at last. Just not this year. Not for this unremarkable book.


Sam said...

I agree that this is way overdue, but I suppose it's a case of "better late, than never." The Round House is definitely one of my favorite 2012 books, one I still think about every so often.