THE ROUND HOUSE, by Louise Erdrich. Harper, 321 pp., $26.99.
Louise Erdrich, who has drawn heavily in her writing on her Ojibwe and German ancestry, overflows with stories. But when a story comes from deep within an author, the reader knows it. It has an organic feeling, no matter how complex, no matter how predictable the outcomes, no matter how unfamiliar the setting or the characters. You just know it.
Not all of Erdrich's novels have this feeling -- how could they? But "The Round House," her 14th novel, does.
"The Round House" is a stunning piece of architecture. It is carefully, lovingly, disarmingly constructed. Even the digressions demand strict attention. Not that it is a preachy book. No, this story about an Ojibwe woman who is violently raped, and about the efforts of her husband and 13-year-old son, Joe, to find her attacker is a human thing -- complete with rage, chaos, resonance, history, uncertainty, certainty. But forgiveness doesn't enter into it. Not because it is a Christian concept. It's simply not the right word.
Revenge is the right word, though Joe's father, a judge on the reservation, would never use it. He has worked too hard to build his own structure, law by law, something that might hold up and be respected long after he has died. Joe, however, has to find his own way to justice. He wants to find the man "whose act had nearly severed my mother's spirit from her body."
The novel is set in South Dakota, on an Ojibwe reservation, in the late 1980s. Erdrich knows this landscape: "There was that hush on the reservation that falls between the summer dusk and dark, before the pickup trucks drag between the bars, the dance hall, and the drive-up liquor window. Sounds were muted -- a horse neighed over the trees." The "round house" is down a dirt road toward the lake -- a place to meet, to make decisions and to celebrate. Geraldine, Joe's mother, is raped there. After she re- turns home from the hospital, she climbs in bed and will not speak of her attacker.
And so we all crawl into the round house, and try to reconstruct what happened there and why. Before we know it, a vision takes shape in our minds. Just as Joe unearths evidence, builds a theory from clues and dreams and ghosts that visit him in the night, we look back and ahead. We see Joe grown and married, a lawyer; we see his father dead. We know things before we know them -- and it isn't because we are so clever.
We know them because Erdrich is experienced. She has led us into the round house, past a parade of characters -- toothless old Mooshun; Sonja with her beautiful breasts; the glassy-eyed doll stuffed with money; the wiindigoo, a crazy monster inside the man who raped Joe's mom.
Inside looking out. There are so many ways this story could unfold. And only one.