The Round House is an engaging story with some issues of voice. It’s enjoyable, hence the amount of stars I gave it.
It suffers from a singular problem: it’s unapologetically racist.
I’ve just opened a whole can of worms, and probably, hate too. So, let’s go through my own biases and definitions before we get to my argument and the evidence.
Bias, aka, About Me
I’m a white man in my 20s and I read the book as such. I come from the American west and, at the time I read the book and formed my opinions on it, I was still living in the American west. Specifically, in northern (and rural) New Mexico. The newspaper I work for (I’m a newspaper reporter, if that adds or subtracts anything from my biases) has the tagline, “News from the Heart of the Pueblo Country.”
If you want to look up anything else about me, it shouldn’t be hard.
Definitions, ideology and premise
I hold to a central premise/ideological standpoint that anyone can be racist and that most of us (really, all of us) are a little bit racist.
Avenue Q sums it up best:
Bigotry has never been
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
Even though we all know
That it’s wrong,
Maybe it would help us
So, that’s the basic premise I’m working off. Everyone can be racist and often times are. My race/color should not exclude me from being able to call out racism in a piece of fiction or non-fiction just like my gender should not prevent me from calling out sexism in the same, or in the workplace, or with my friends.
In a perfect world, I would not feel like I have to justify my position with anything more than analysis and quotes from the book. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world and my color, gender, nationality and age will undoubtedly be used as reasons to discredit my analysis of the blatant racism endemic in Erdrich’s novel. (I will posit, any attacks based on any of the above identifiers I have revealed about myself is further proof of the little-bit-racist world we live in. As Avenue Q’s Gary Coleman puts it, “bigotry has never been exclusively white.”)
The subtext of my position, listed above, is that racism against the majority or against the perceived (or real) oppressor/majority power is still racism.
Erdrich puts forth a racist view of white people in the Round House.
As a point of clarification: I am not arguing some of her characters are racist, although they are. That’s totally fine. I have no problem with racist, sexist or otherwise nasty characters.
I am arguing that her entire book puts forth an exclusively negative, stereotypical and otherwise racist view of white people. It is not that the characters are racist, it is that the world she sets up is. When the world the author creates portrays one group of people in an exclusively negative light, I think the work is up for consideration if it is an –ist/-ism book or not. If women (or men) are portrayed exclusively in a negative light, I think the claim that a novel/book is misogynist (or misandrist) can be examined.
Please think of the difference between, say, a racist character in a novel and a racist portrayal in a novel of an entire class of characters. If Erdrich were anti-Semitic (she is not, that I have seen; there are no Jewish characters in The Round House) every single Jewish character would embody one or more negative stereotypes used to portray Jews negatively. I will not re-hash those attributes.
Instead, every single white character is so negatively portrayed, so disgusting, so racist themselves, so evil and so power-abusing as to make her novel racist itself. Erdrich also goes a step further to even have her white characters act out the supremacy associated with white Americans.
As others may point out, there is one white character who is not negatively portrayed. I will make the argument, later on, that she is not white in the context of the novel’s univerise. The character in question, Linda, was adopted by an Indian family because she was disfigured when she was born and her white mother did not want her. In the context of the universe Erdrich created, she is accepted as a member of the reservation.
My last point is, I do not take issue with the book merely because it is so brashly racist against white Americans. I take issue with the book because it is so brashly racist. If the target of Erdrich’s ire were Jews, or African-Americans or Japense-Americans or Asian-Americans or Native-Americans or Hispanic-Americans or Monster-Americans (Kate Monster, Trekkie Monster), I would have the same problems and would list out the evidence for such blatant racism below. The group being targeted for such a nasty treatment does not matter, it matters that a group is being targeted for nasty treatment.
The obligatory plot summary
Joe, the narrator, is 13 at the time when something terrible happens to his mother. The FBI is incompetent and Joe, looking back as an adult, wants to do something about it.
Joe’s mother works in the tribal government and his father is a tribal judge. (Solidly middle class.)
A lot of the book is Joe growing up on the reservation in this time period/this time of his life, not necessarily related to the plot mentioned above.
The cast of white characters
1. The Priest, Father Travis
2. The FBI Agent, Soren Bjerke
3. Linda Wishkob’s Brother, Linden
4. Linda’s Parents/Mother
5. North Dakota Governor
Father Travis’ actions do not appear to rile any other reviewers, which really surprises me. With the exceptions of the rape perpetrator, he/his actions are ridiculously and systematically abusive, but none of the characters seem to care.
Travis embodies and symbolizes two destructive forces and, through his actions, becomes a racist caricature of white power, both physical and religious.
Physically, Travis is a veteran who works out in his little cottage on the church grounds. (He selectively makes the church grounds, and the beach it owns, private, excluding the natives when he feels like it). He is a built man. He also abuses the children of the reservation. Not in a sexual way, but in a very real, physical way. He does this in his capacity as both a priest (and therefore a ruling-class individual) and in his personal capacity as a white man.
No one so much as blinks at his actions.
In the first example, below, he also embodies the idea that white women are sacred and therefore, violating/touching/having consensual relation with them, if you’re not white, is deserving of extreme punishment. See the history of lynching. The male in question is not black, rather a Tribe member, but it’s the same difference.
Cappy (one of Joe’s friends) goes to the confessional to confess his carnal relations (on church grounds) with a white girl, brought onto the reservation’s church grounds for some kind of summer program.
“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion. Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hasn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew. Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pews toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking serious of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.
Father Travis’s face had gone so white that red-brown freckles usually invisible stood out as if drawn on with a sharp pencil.”
Cappy confesses to the relations and Travis loses it. A Native-American (man) had carnal relations with a white woman! Lynch the bastard, right? That’s right: that’s how all white people feel, because white people are unabashedly racist, especially when it comes to the carnal relations of anyone but white people with white women.
So then, Travis continues to chase Cappy out of the church, through yards and briars, over hills and basins.
He manages to capture Cappy. Holds him aloft with one hand and brings the other back for a full-force punch, and stops in mid-ar. Joe reminds Travis that Cappy is a minor.
“A minor, I said, who came to you for help, Father Travis.”
Notice how Joe points our how absurdly in the wrong the white man is? Attacking a minor. A minor who came to him for help, who came to him to confess. Travis is abusing his powers as an adult and as a priest. But the white power structure cannot abide for the relations and it is allowed to break all vows, to break all strictures of behavior if it is done by a non-white, Erdrich seems to write.
Once the boys are in the moral right, they get on their bikes and ride away.
By no means is this the first time Father Travis asserts his white and male rights to abuse the reservation members. Earlier, the boys (Joe, Cappy and Angus) go to spy on him. He grabs Angus, and throws him onto a couch, after luring the other two in.
“He kicked me in the shin, and although he was barefoot my leg went numb and I rocked backwards.”
This is a full-grown man, with calves, abs and pectorals of steel abusing a 13-year-old boy.
“Father Travis reached out and yanked Cappy off the couch with one streaming jerk of his leg. Cappy hit the floor hard but didn’t cry out.”
He then abuses the other boy. No one bats an eye, even though he is using his trifectal power: he is white, he is the head priest and therefore a patriarch, and he is a man. All the necessaries for him to abuse the boys with no compunction, and further, becoming a three-prong testament to why white people are so bad.
Like the white characters below, he has a pathological need to control, oppress and subjugate the Native Americans.
The FBI Agent
The only FBI agents (they’re all white) on reservations, or investigating crimes on the reservations, are those who are either rookies or put there as punishment for their own incompetence and the FBI agent proves to be plenty incompetent, despite amble evidence.
Yet again, a white character is portrayed only as a negative caricature.
When Joe brings evidence to him, and admits to drinking after having found the evidence, the FBI agent insists he must enforce the law and issue a misdemeanor minor-in-consumption ticket, although he is very likely the first FBI agent to ever do so.
He must punish the boy for having upset the power structure, and he must do so because he is white.
Because he has been proven to be wrong by the Native-American protagonist, he must punish the Native American boy. White men cannot do or be good. They can only be caricatures of evil, minor and major.
Linda Wishkob’s brother, Linden Lark
Linden Lark is an out-and-out nasty character with deep-seated hatreds. He is, by definition, a psychopath and does a series of evil deeds, not to mention he terrorization of the people on the reservation.
I will not go into much more detail on Linden, suffice to say, he is, again, a caricature of hate-consumed white man.
He has a pathological need to oppress, control and subjugate the Native Americans, because he is white.
Linda’s mother/parents, the Larks
Linda, deformed in the womb by her brother, was unwanted by her parents for this reason. The good-natured and big-hearted Native Americans, specifically, a worker in the hospital, adopted her and the adopted mother and father raised her as their own.
When Linda’s adoptive parents die, Linda’s mother makes a legal grab for the house she occupies, because Linda’s mother is white and therefore evil. In essence, she wants to use the land to exploit those who live on the reservation.
The only time Linda’s mother contacts her is when she wants to exploit the reservation property Linda is on. She is white, and therefore, has a pathological need to oppresses, abuse, subjugate
Linda’s mother owned a store and tried, at every chance, to exploit the people on the reservation.
This deep sense of hate against Native Americans is ingrained in white people.
“You don’t swear on the job, said Sonja. You’re representing something.
Okay. We drove for a few miles. I asked what I was representing.
Reservation-based free market enterprise. People are watching us.
Who’s watching us?
White people. I mean, resentful ones. You know? Like those Larks who owned Vinland. He’s been here, but he’s nice to me. Like, he’s not so bad.
Yea, that one.
You should watch out for him, I said.
She laughed. Whitey hates his guts. When I’m nice to him, he gets so jealous.”
North Dakota Governor
The North Dakota Governor, well, needless to say, he is a hypocritical white man with the above-mentioned needs of the other white characters. I will not go into details, due to spoiler reasons. Regardless, the evidence is there. Caricature of a white man oppressing the Native American because he can/is white.
Ancillary problems with the law
I had some deep problems with the way the law is portrayed in this 2012 book. Although it’s set in the 80s, it portrays law on Indian reservations as some kind of terrible black hole if a white person commits a crime against a Native American. While that might have been the case in the 1980s, it certainly is not the case today. Federal laws on violence are usually much stricter than state laws and the U.S. Attorney’s Office goes after those who commit any violent, or implied-violence act against a registered Native American woman.
Violence in this case being battery and implied violence, or the threat of violence, being considered assault or some offshoot.
Simply put, there are deep problems with violence on the reservations, but if you read Erdrich’s telling, it’s all perpetrated by white people, who control the reservations through their federal power networks.
My other problem with the law as portrayed in Erdrich’s book is cognitive dissonance in both Joe and in Joe’s father when it comes to the application of justice, justified killings and the broader idea of sovereignty.
Both espouse, at great lengths, their beliefs on the above-mentioned issues. But they are never confronted with, nor do they confront, the realities of what they espouse. They yearn for a system where the reservation is not governed by the Federal Government at all, where their law is the law, and there is no other law. Yet, they do not confront the realities that this would entail, the positive and negative issues that arise and the very real racial segregation this would entail. That’s some good cognitive dissonance.
Racist characters, themes, etc. do not a racist, or “-ist” work make. Portraying an entire class of people, whether it be women, whites, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Kentuckians, The French, Asian-Americans, men, or transgender, as singularly negative, and associating each one of those characters with a negative stereotype does an “-ist” work make.
Erdrich does with in The Round House, with the only other characters than those on the reservation: white people.
Read the above evidence. Agree or disagree. Think on it.
Then, switch the roles. Think, white suburbanites replace the Native Americans on the reservation and either African Americans or Native Americans replace the white characters. Would we then call it racist? If every single non-white character were portrayed as a negative caricature, hell-bent on degrading the other, would it be any worse? Racist is racist, -ist is –ist, regardless of who calls it out or who the victim is the –ist/-ism is.