NEA Big Read
The Round House

The Round House

by Louise Erdrich

Always I kept going back to the day I dug the trees out of the foundation of our house. How tough those roots had clung.

  1. Though he is older as he narrates the story, Joe is just thirteen when the events of the novel take place. What is the significance of his age? How does that impact his actions and reactions? How would the story be different if it was told in present tense rather than in retrospect?
  2. Joe's whole family is rocked by the attack on his mother. How does it affect the relationship between his mother and father, and between him and his mother and him and his father? Does it alter Joe's view of them? How does it transform his family?
  3. “My mother's job was to know everybody's secrets,” Joe tells us. How does this knowledge empower Geraldine and how does it make her life more difficult?
  4. Can trauma force a child to “grow up” quickly? Grow up how?
  5. Joe is inseparable from his three friends, especially his best friend, Cappy. How would you describe the bond between them? How does their closeness influence unfolding events?
  6. What is the significance of the round house? What is the importance of animals, nature, spirituality, and the Obijwe legends that are scattered through the novel? How do these aspects reflect and deepen the main story? What can we learn from the ways of people like the Ojibwe?
  7. After the attack, Joe's mother, Geraldine, isn't sure exactly where it happened, whether it was technically on Reservation land or not. How does the legal relationship between the U.S. and the Ojibwe complicate the investigation? Why can't she lie to make it easier?
  8. Secondary characters, including Mooshum, Linda Wishkob, Sonja, Whitey, Clemence, and Father Travis, play indelible roles in the central story. What do their stories and interactions with the main characters tell us about the wider world of the reservation and about relations between white and Native Americans?
  9. Towards the novel's climax, Father Travis tells Joe, “in order to purify yourself, you have to understand yourself. Everything out in the world is also in you. Good, bad, evil, perfection, death, everything. So we study our souls.” Would you say this is a good characterization of humanity? How is each of these things visible in Joe's personality?
  10. When Joe makes his fateful decision concerning his mother's attacker, he says it is about justice, not vengeance. What do you think? How does that decision change him? Why doesn't he share the information he has with the people who love him?
  11. How would you describe the various prejudices that play out in the story, including prejudices against Native Americans? How do they compare to current-day prejudices?
  12. “My father remembered that of course an Ojibwe person's clan meant everything at one time, and no one didn't have a clan; thus, you know your place in the world and your relationship to all other beings.” Has modernity transformed this idea of family and community?
  13. The Round House begins and ends with the metaphor of trees spreading out their roots and attacking the foundation of Joe's house. Are there other metaphors in the novel that similarly reflect Joe's story and/or the story of the Native American people?
  14. “The only thing that God can do, and does all the time, is to draw good from any evil situation,” Father Travis advised Joe. What good does Joe—and also his family—draw from the events of the summer of 1988? What life lessons did Joe learn?
  15. Erdrich explains in an afterword that tribal governments have been prohibited since 1978 from prosecuting non-Natives who commit crimes on their land. In 2013, however—one year after The Round House was published—the Violence Against Women Act was effectively reauthorized after several years of being blocked in Congress, eliminating this prohibition. In what ways can works of fiction help influence reality? Can you think of other examples where this has occurred?

Source material for The Round House discussion questions provided courtesy of HarperCollins.

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