When I picked up “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich, I was initially attracted by the big gold circle on the front cover, proudly proclaiming it as a National Book Award winner. (Also it’s a New York Times bestseller, though that sometimes seems to be every published book). The book certainly lived up to that hype, and I’m hard-pressed to understand why it hasn’t become a part of high school canon — another “coming of age set against a unique setting” novel.
I liked the book. Truly, I did. I was frustrated at times, when plots would suddenly be dropped, only to pick up again a hundred pages later. There were characters that I wanted more fully developed, little side stories that I wanted explored more. However, with a teenage boy as a narrator, it makes sense that some of the most intriguing subplots are forgotten in favor of girls, drinking, and a salacious crime.
At the end of the day, the book was extremely similar to another book about crime and youth — “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How so, you ask?
(1). Atticus v. Bazil. Both novels feature a father working in justice. TKaM has Atticus Finch, perhaps the most famous literary lawyer. He tirelessly fights for justice in a racist culture that would prefer that a black person die than seek out the true perpetrator. TRH has Bazil, a tribal judge in a reservation in North Dakota. He tirelessly fights for jurisdiction over a crime that would be forgotten if handled by the federal government.
(2). Crime! In TKaM, it’s the rape of a white woman, supposedly committed by a black man. Rather than go after the liars who concocted the story, the town assumes guilt, and convicts despite a lack of evidence. In TRH it’s the rape of a Native American woman by a white man. A spin around, but the same conclusion — justice isn’t served, and our protagonists have their faith in the justice system shaken.
(3). Coming of Age. TRH isn’t about the crime, just as TKaM isn’t about the trial. Both books are, at their hearts, coming of age stories. The climax of TKaM isn’t the conclusion of the trial — it’s when Jem and Scout are accosted returning from a dance — it’s when Jem suddenly finds himself in the same position as Tom Robinson, the man falsely accused of rape. There is no trial in TRH — but the climax is the moment when Joe, the young protagonist, loses all faith in his father’s ability to try the crime, and decides to take justice into his own hands.
(4). A mysterious “Other.” In TKaM it’s Boo Radley, the stranger who lives next door and saves Scout and Jem at the very end of the book. In TRH, it’s Father Travis, a war veteran turned priest, a scarred and terrifying visage who yet shows more humanity than almost any other character.
(5) The Best Friend. Dill, the mischievious friend of Scout and Jem, spends countless hours trying to lure Boo Radley out of the house, but at crucial moments shows intense friendship and loyalty. In TRH you have Cappy, who spends a majority of the book infuriating adults and bemoaning his ended romance with a young girl. At the end of the book, however, he ultimately saves Joe, and shows himself to be the truest of friends.
(6). The Protagonist Turned Criminal. TKaM ends with the question — who killed Bill Erwin? Was it Boo Radley, as he claims, or was it Jem? Atticus (protagonist by proxy) finds himself in the impossible position of deciding whether to turn his beloved son over to judicial authorities that he no longer has faith in. In the end of TRH, Bazil clearly knows that his son has committed a crime — unlike Atticus, he does not have the strength to even consider turning in his son.
If anything, TRH is a slightly darker version of TKaM — the coming of age story doesn’t include discovery of love, but rather a discovery of hate, deceit, and human darkness. The novel doesn’t end with understanding “the other”, but with avoiding him at all costs. It’s a worthwhile read, with an interesting look at the juxtaposition between “white” justice and tribal justice, and a realistic view of how a boy growing up halfway between white culture and Ojibwe culture views the world.