Joe, Cappy, Zack, and Angus all love bike riding, as it gives them a sense of freedom since they can not yet (legally) drive. One day, Joe packs lunch, leaves a note for his parents saying he is at the lake, and then leaves on his bike to meet Cappy, Zack, and Angus at the round house. Joe is the first one there, and he begins to look around for evidence of the crime against his mother in the lawn around the building.
Joe and his friends’ bike riding shows their adolescent interest in exploration and branching out from home. However, it also represents their still-intact innocence, especially in contrast to the very adult, dangerous activity of driving, which takes on a sinister light later in the novel.
Joe hears what he thinks is a sound coming from the round house itself. Joe goes up to it and looks inside, but sees nothing amiss. Joe explains that, before the Chippewa people were allowed to practice their religion openly, the round house was used for secret religious ceremonies, and people would pretend they were going to Bible study there. According to Mooshum, there was actually one Catholic priest at the time who partook in the Chippewa religious rites alongside the Chippewa people. As Joe stands in the round house doorway, he realizes for certain that it was there, inside the round house, that Geraldine was attacked. Joe begins to cry.
As Joe discusses the history of the round house, it becomes clear that the round house, though it represents centuries of religious and cultural communion, also represents the efforts that were made by white Americans to stifle Chippewa spirituality and heritage. As Joe thinks of this historical weight and the fact of his mother’s attack, he is perhaps overwhelmed not only by the violence done to his mother, but also its context in a larger history of cultural violence.
Joe focuses his thoughts on how exactly his mother escaped, mentally tracing her route. Joe then walks out of the building to follow the attacker’s probable path along the lake to get more matches—the move that allowed Geraldine to escape. He pictures what the attacker was thinking as he realized Geraldine was escaping, and he imagines that the attacker would have felt an urgent need to get rid of the gasoline can he used to douse Geraldine. Joe imagines he would have waded out into the lake and let the can sink to the bottom. Sure enough, when Joe dives into the lake, he finds the can at the bottom.
In order to get his thoughts in line and complete his mission of finding case evidence, Joe tries to think as if he were Geraldine’s attacker, imagining what he might do. This activity, although clearly for the purpose of catching the attacker, is also a strange act of empathizing. Joe’s ability to successfully imagine himself as the attacker seems to inform his later concern, after killing Linden, that he shares Linden’s capacity for violence.
When Cappy, Zack, and Angus arrive, they find Joe sitting outside of the round house and with the gas can at his feet. Joe, finally putting two and two together, feels like he is going to vomit because he has realized that Geraldine’s attacker had intended to set her on fire. Joe, however, plays it cool when his friends arrive. Angus offers him a cigarette. After the boys smoke, Joe tells his friends that he wants to “get” Geraldine’s attacker.
As Joe finally allows himself to understand that Geraldine’s attacker had intended to set her on fire (a fact he earlier seemed to understand subconsciously, but could not actually acknowledge), he is so overwhelmed and upset that he vomits, and then articulates a clear desire for revenge.
Joe and the other boys eat the sandwiches that Joe packed. Once they finish, Joe begins explaining the geography and timeline of Geraldine’s attack to his friends. Joe thinks that the attacker must have left a camp in the woods, so all the boys look for it together. As they search, the boys pick up a used condom, crushed beer cans, etc. Soon they are covered in woodticks, so they strip down and go for a swim in the lake. The boys get rowdy and make lewd sex jokes. When they get out of the water, they make a fire and sit around it, talking about Star Trek.
As the boys conduct their amateur investigation of the area, quickly becoming distracted and reverting to play, Erdrich draws an intimate picture of boyhood friendships. Although the boys attempt to help find evidence, they clearly are not actually mature enough to focus on that kind of project. Erdrich shows the reader that, at this point in the novel, the boys are still very much children.
After a while, Angus goes off in the woods to pee and returns with two six packs of Hamm’s beer. They follow Angus back through the woods to the area where he found the beer, and they see a cooler and a heap of clothes. The boys drink the beers and then scan the area for evidence, laughing and joking as they look. Joe pokes the pile of clothes with a stick and then suggests that they leave the clothes to the police. The boys decide that they should drink the rest of the beer so the police don’t find out that they drank half of the evidence. They jump in the lake again and then each crack open a second beer. Joe expresses his distrust of the police’s methods, since they missed both the gas can and the pile of clothes. He suggests that they burn the clothes so the police won’t know that they’ve been interfering with evidence.
When Angus finds the beer, the reader sees Joe and his friends experimenting with adulthood through activities like drinking. This experimentation escalates over the course of the book, becoming increasingly dangerous. However, this scene also reveals the boys’ extreme immaturity. When Joe suggests that they burn the clothes that they found, thereby keeping evidence from the police in order to avoid getting in trouble, Erdrich shows how the boys cannot yet think beyond their own relationships to authority to prioritize things more important than themselves.
Suddenly, the boys hear a loud whistle in the woods, startling them. They quickly decide to leave. Joe ties the gas can to his bike and then the boys ride off. Realizing that they are hungry, the boys brainstorm where they can get food. They decide to go to Grandma Thunder’s house, since she always is willing to feed them. They decide, though, to avoid any sexual language, because Grandma Thunder loves to joke about sex and that makes the boys uncomfortable. As the boys list all the sexual words that they should not say around her, they all start to get turned on, so they separate and go into the woods to masturbate before getting back on their bikes.
In addition to alcohol, the boys have also begun to engage in another adult domain: sexuality. The boys, none of whom seem to have actually had a sexual relationship at this point, clearly lack control over their sexual impulses, resulting in humorous moments like this one, when the boys all go masturbate in the woods. As the book goes on, Erdrich will show how Joe’s currently innocent interest in sexuality becomes increasingly problematic.
The boys arrive at the retirement home where Grandma Thunder lives, and they stop in the lobby so that Joe can call Bazil and tell him where he is. On the phone, Joe asks Bazil where Geraldine is, and Bazil tells him she’s upstairs. Joe tries to tell Bazil he loves him, but Bazil has already hung up. Cappy tells Joe to hurry, and Joe, upset, snaps at him.
Erdrich makes it clear that, although Bazil does certainly love Joe, he is not especially emotionally affectionate and cannot give Joe the support that he needs as he grapples with Geraldine’s attack.
As the boys walk toward Grandma Thunder’s apartment, Joe tries to apologize to Cappy. Cappy cuts him off, though, and says that Joe bought the shoes Cappy wanted. Joe, who covets Cappy’s shoes, suggests that they trade, and they do. They all enter the apartment, where Grandma Thunder is cooking, and they start to eat the food she has already laid out. Grandma Thunder finishes cooking the meat and frybread and the boys eat ravenously. Joe is about to put his plate in the sink and say goodbye when Mrs. Bijiu, another older woman, arrives to see Grandma.
Although Bazil and Geraldine cannot support Joe the way he needs them to, Joe finds support in other parts of his community. Obviously Cappy, who is an excellent friend to Joe throughout the book, is one of these people. Adults in the community support Joe in various ways as well, including Grandma Thunder, who, although she is only related to Zach, feeds all the boys when they come to her house.
The boys all thank Grandma Thunder. As Grandma Thunder is waving them out, Mrs. Bijiu comments that one of the boys is “bony,” setting the older women off into a series of raunchy sex jokes. The boys are uncomfortable, but also curious, as the women share stories about their own sex lives. They linger a while before leaving the apartment. Joe and Cappy switch their shoes back, but Joe feels that Cappy, a loyal friend, would have let Joe keep the shoes if he thought it would make him feel better.
In this moment, the reader again sees that the boys are on the cusp of adult sexuality, and are very interested in learning about sex and understanding how adults talk about it. Although the boys are repulsed by Zach’s grandmother’s vulgar jokes and stories, they are also drawn to them, listening in with fascination.
As Joe arrives back home, Pearl meets him at the door. Joe feeds Pearl an extra sandwich from Grandma Thunder’s house, puts his bike away, and goes inside. Edward and Bazil are drinking in Bazil’s study. Joe eavesdrops from the couch in the living room, figuring he will pretend to be asleep if caught. Bazil and Edward talk about how Geraldine will not let Bazil sleep in her bed and how she is isolating herself from everyone, including Joe. Bazil has trouble using the word “rape” to describe what happened to Geraldine because it clearly upsets him.
Although Bazil has been trying to be a grounding presence for Joe, Bazil himself also needs support in coping with Geraldine’s attack. As Joe eavesdrops on Edward and Bazil talking through Bazil’s feelings about the assault, he sees his father as a vulnerable, worried person rather than a confident authority figure, pushing Joe toward a more adult understanding of his father.
Edward tries to comfort Bazil and suggest solutions, like taking Geraldine to church (Geraldine, however, does not attend church since returning from boarding school). Bazil asks what the new parish priest is like, and Edward tells him Father Travis is a handsome ex-marine from Dallas who shoots prairie dogs in his spare time. The two men both begin to wonder whether Father Travis could have been the one who raped Geraldine, thinking that the rape in the round house could have been a symbolic assertion of Catholic supremacy. Joe thinks that this sounds plausible.
As Bazil and Edward discuss the possibility that Father Travis raped Geraldine in the round house as a way of symbolically asserting Catholic supremacy over Chippewa religion, they tap into the historically loaded relationship between Catholicism and the Chippewa people. Catholicism, although practiced by many Chippewa people, was frequently used as a tool to erase Chippewa traditions and culture.
Joe falls asleep on the couch and later wakes up to the sounds of Edward and Bazil saying goodbye to each other. After Edward leaves, Bazil tidies up the kitchen, then walks up the stairs into the guest bedroom instead of his room with Geraldine. Joe goes upstairs to sleep, realizing with anger that Bazil did not check to see if he was home. Joe wishes that he could go back to before his mother’s attack, replaying the events of that afternoon and wondering what he could have done to change things.
The fact that Bazil and Geraldine are no longer sleeping in the same room implies that Geraldine’s trauma from her rape makes her uncomfortable in any kind of intimate situation, including sleeping in the same bed as her husband. Joe’s resentment towards his father, meanwhile, increases as he feels Bazil is neglecting him.
As Joe ruminates on the attack, he wonders again about the file Geraldine went back to the office to get that Sunday. Joe suddenly remembers that Geraldine had left to get the file in response to a phone call, and he wonders who could have called. Pearl enters the bedroom and looks fixedly out the window. Joe looks out to see what has gotten her attention, and in the moonlight Joe sees a shadowy silver figure that appears to be a spirit. It seems to be talking to Joe, but he cannot hear it or read its lips. Suddenly the apparition disappears. Pearl relaxes and Joe, exhausted, goes to sleep.
With Joe’s sighting of this spirit, Erdrich shows the reader that, in her novel’s world, characters encounter real spiritual presences. Although Erdrich pokes fun at both Chippewa and Catholic religions, she also takes religious experience very seriously, never questioning the veracity of the spiritual experiences of characters like Joe and Randall or implying that they are imagined.
The next morning, Joe wakes up early and makes toast. Bazil comes into the kitchen to make coffee and puts his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe shrugs it off. When Bazil asks if Joe slept well, Joe, who is still upset about his father not checking on him the night before, asks angrily where Bazil thinks he slept. Bazil, surprised, says that he covered Joe with a blanket when he fell asleep on the couch. Joe then tells Bazil that he thinks he saw a ghost. Rather than dismissing Joe’s claim, Bazil says that ghosts are “out there.” Bazil then takes a cup of coffee up to Geraldine. Joe is angry that Bazil did not try to comfort him by telling him that ghosts do not exist.
When Bazil tells Joe that he did, in fact, check on him before going to bed, and even covered him in a blanket, Erdrich seems to be implying that Joe’s anger at his father is not based on neglect on Bazil’s part. Rather, Joe’s resentment towards his father reflects the pain of breaking away from his parents in order to establish an independent identity. The reader sees this again as Joe is angered when Bazil does not comfort Joe about the ghost.
When Bazil returns, Joe asks what he meant when he said that ghosts are “out there.” Bazil explains that he used to see ghosts when he worked in a graveyard. Joe is astonished that Bazil believes in ghosts. He asks Bazil why he thinks the ghost was outside his bedroom window. Bazil suggests it may be because of Geraldine’s attack, saying that ghosts are “attracted to disturbances.” Bazil also says the ghost may be someone from Joe’s future. He suggests that Joe watch out for the ghost in case it’s trying to tell him something. Joe then remembers how Randall told him that he also saw a ghost in the sweat lodge. Joe hopes he can appease the ghost with Ojibwe medicine.
Again, Erdrich and her characters obviously take spiritual experiences like Joe’s seriously. Bazil’s descriptions of what ghosts mean comes from his knowledge of Chippewa religion, in which spirits are not unusual. By taking the ghosts seriously, Erdrich also takes seriously the Chippewa religion that they are affiliated with, rather than dismissing these experiences because they do not fit into white Euro-American logic.
Joe tells his father not to worry about the ghost, and Bazil agrees. Joe suggests they recruit Father Travis to bless the yard to keep the ghost away, and Bazil realizes out loud that Joe was listening to him and Edward talk the night before. Joe confirms that that is true, and he also reveals that he went with Cappy, Angus, and Zack to the round house.
Although Joe has begun acting without his parents’ approval and making independent decisions, he clearly still is dependent enough on them that he feels the need to tell Bazil what he has been up to, even though he knows it may get him in trouble.