In 1988, a North Dakota Ojibwe Indian family suffers a crisis when Geraldine, a tribal judge’s wife, is brutally raped near the round house, a place for religious ceremonies. Her husband, Bazil, is a man who adheres to strict tribal ethics, though his wife is the victim. In this novel, Geraldine and Bazil’s 13-year-old son Joe, a precociously observant youngster catapulted into adulthood, adroitly recalls these events.
Bazil conducts a private investigation. Geraldine, who had been blindfolded, is unsure where the attack occurred. If the crime was committed by a white man, or did not occur on tribal land, Bazil has no jurisdiction. He explains this complexity when he cites case law to Joe: “Oliphant v. Suqamish [t]ook from us the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on our land.” In 1823, Supreme Court “Justice Marshall went out of his way to strip away all Indian title to all lands.”
"Like multitudinous notes in a symphony, Louise Erdrich orchestrates the nuances in Joe’s complex life. She gets into the mind of a teenage boy, and fondly reminds me of the goofiness I experienced at that age. Tragic events at the conclusion, though, also remind me of personal crises that prematurely thrust me into an adult realm."
Like his father, Joe begins his own investigation and locates evidence overlooked by police. He tells us, “My father had forgotten my existence. Memories put down in agitation at a vulnerable age do not extinguish with time, but engrave ever deeper as they return and return.” He becomes obsessed with the burden of returning his family’s life to its lost innocence.
Joe recalls how, on the day of the crime, he helped his father pull sprouted tree seeds out of their home’s foundation: “Each seed had managed to sink the hasp of a root deep and a probing tendril outward.” This symbolism courses through the novel like the countless buffalo that once dominated the prairies. “And how funny, strange, that a thing can grow so powerful even when planted in the wrong place.”
Joe and his best friend, Cappy, experience racial and economic prejudice from “store clerks who watched us with suspicion and took our money with contempt.” Later, as a teen, Joe enters manhood when he makes a decision and sees it through; he deceives his parents, “building lie upon lie, and it all came naturally to me as honesty once had. Any judge knows there are many kinds of justice.”
Like multitudinous notes in a symphony, Louise Erdrich orchestrates the nuances in Joe’s complex life. She gets into the mind of a teenage boy, and fondly reminds me of the goofiness I experienced at that age. Tragic events at the conclusion, though, also remind me of personal crises that prematurely thrust me into an adult realm. The recipient of many awards, Erdrich was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for THE PLAGUE OF DOVES, a prequel of sorts to her 14th and current stunning novel, which I believe will take home that coveted prize.
(Please wear a Pink Ribbon to signify breast cancer awareness. In the afterword, Erdrich, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, discloses, “Everyone rallied wonderfully during my treatment for breast cancer.”)
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on October 12, 2012