Louise Erdrich speaks at Unity Temple
Barbara Ballinger Lecture at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., Oak Park
7 p.m. Oct. 23
Free lecture is hosted by the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library.
Updated: October 17, 2012 3:14PM
Award-winning writer Louise Erdrich received some good news recently.
The novelist, who visits Oak Park’s Unity Temple Oct. 23 where she will present the Barbara Ballinger Lecture, learned that her 14th and most recent book The Round House, was nominated for the National Book Award.
Erdrich, a celebrated writer about Native-American life, was previously nominated in 1999 for her children’s book, The Birchbark House, and two years later for her novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
“I think I’ll talk about how this novel came to be written,” she said in a phone interview. “It took me a long time. My talk is really based on how a person writes a political novel without falling into polemical traps.”
Set in 1988 on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, The Round House tackles the “tremendous ongoing problem,” Erdrich said, of sexual violence against Native women. But at its heart, it is the story of 13-year-old Joe, narrating the story as an adult, and his relationship with his mother, who is brutally attacked, and his father, a tribal judge.
When questions of jurisdiction hinder prosecution, Joe is compelled to investigate the case with his three best friends and contemplate vengeance.
The Round House, the second book in a proposed trilogy that began with the Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Plague of Doves, has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird as an intimately observed coming-of-age story that unfolds over one summer, and centers on issues of crime and justice.
(Fun fact: the chapter titles are taken from episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the favorite show of Joe and his friends).
At the book’s core are statistics reported by Amnesty International that Erdrich cites in the book’s Afterword: “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime; 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted.”
But Erdrich thinks of the book more as a human relationships story, one told with suspense as a way to approach and make more accessible to readers its difficult subject matter.
It took her a frustratingly long time, she said, to find her way into the story she wanted to tell until she was helping to dig out trees from the foundation of her parents’ house, a scene she recreates in the beginning of the book. “Driving home, I started to hear the voice of Joe,” she said. With Joe’s father’s haunting question, “Where is your mother?” she knew she had the book.
“You don’t really have a say over everything you write,” she said. “You have to wait for the right characters and voice to come to you. I had to wait for this. When it started happening I was ready. I loved living as a 13-year-old boy for a couple of years. I was a tomboy (growing up). I rode my bike all around. My daughters, too, have brought boys into my life. I thoroughly enjoy listening to them, and they could care less.”
The scenes of violence were a challenge for her. “I had never done that before,” she said. “I rewrote the mother’s monologue more times than I can say.”
Erdrich, 58, lives in Minneapolis, where she owns Birchback Books, an independent bookstore. The success of “The Round House” is hardly her only reason to celebrate this year.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she is now cancer free. During her treatment and recovery, she not only finished The Round House, but also a new children’s book, Chickadee, and a rewritten version of her novel, The Antelope Wife, both also published this year.
The Round House, she said, “is a book I hope touches people in a very visceral way and reaches those who wouldn’t know about this problem.”