The Round House opens as the narrator, Joe, describes himself and his father Bazil weeding saplings that have grown into the foundation of his parents’ house. As Bazil removes some of the seedlings, he accidentally makes spots for new trees to grow the next year. Joe expresses surprise that any of the saplings had survived the hard winter. Bazil stands up and tells Joe they’ve done enough, but Joe continues to work as Bazil goes into the house to call Geraldine, Joe’s mother. Joe continues to weed alone all afternoon with an unusually sharp focus. Joe says that he retrospectively wonders why he was so focused on the project.
The opening scene of the book is loading with symbolic significance, as Joe uproots trees that have begun to grow into the foundation of his house. As the plot of the novel unfolds, it later becomes clear that this scene foreshadows Joe’s murder of Linden Lark to avenge his mother’s rape. Like the murder, uprooting the trees protects Joe’s childhood home, but both also require Joe to be violent in a way that hurts him and diminishes his innocence.
When Joe finally quits weeding the trees, he goes into Bazil’s study to peruse Bazil’s copy of Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Joe notes an exclamation point in the margin next to a case called United States v. Forty-three Gallons of Whiskey. Joe finds the name funny, but the case is actually very important, as it upheld a precedent that Native treaties with the United States government were the same as those of sovereign nations. Joe drinks a glass of water as he reads and thinks that the “grandeur and power” of the Chippewa people that his grandfather, Mooshum, talks about has not been totally lost because it was legally protected.
As Joe reads through his father’s anthology of Native case law, he demonstrates a reverence towards his father’s work. Early on in the book, Joe is optimistic about the protections, powers, and autonomy that the law provides to Native tribes. Later, as Joe comes of age and grows increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress on his mother’s case, he becomes extremely cynical about law, his father’s work, and Native sovereignty in America.
Bazil walks into the study and Joe hides the book under the table. Bazil then asks Joe where Geraldine is. Joe and Bazil stare at each other briefly in a way that Joe thinks is “somehow adult.” Joe suggests that Geraldine may be at work. It is a Sunday, but Geraldine, who is a tribal enrollment specialist, had received a phone call and then told Joe she was going to her office to find a file. However, Joe thinks his mother should be back by now. Joe muses that, unbeknownst to women, men count on the “regularity of [women’s] habits,” so Geraldine’s absence surprises them.
As Bazil questions Geraldine’s absence, Joe and Bazil exchange a look that is “somehow adult.” This look, which conveys concern for Geraldine’s well being, is the first indication that Geraldine’s rape will usher in a new adult role for Joe. Meanwhile, Joe’s comment about women’s habits reflects the gender roles that later make it difficult for Bazil and Joe to adjust to domestic life without Geraldine.
Bazil and Joe exit the house to borrow Joe’s uncle Edward’s car and find Geraldine. Joe explains to the reader that his father is a judge. Joe walks with his father to his aunt Clemence and Edward’s house. Joe’s grandfather Mooshum, who is very elderly, also lives with them. Joe and Bazil borrow Clemence’s car and drive to Geraldine’s office, but the parking lot is empty. As Joe and Bazil drive to the grocery store to see if Geraldine stopped there, Joe begins to feel how abnormal it is that Geraldine has not come home.
As Joe describes Clemence and Edward’s proximity and Mooshum’s presence, Erdrich shows Joe’s extended family to be extremely tight-knit. This familial network becomes essential later, when Geraldine and Bazil, distracted by Geraldine’s healing and her case, are too busy to parent Joe, and Joe spends extended periods of time with his aunts and uncles.
Once they are halfway to the grocery store, it occurs to Joe that it is closed on Sundays. Bazil keeps driving, however, and suddenly Geraldine speeds past them going in the other direction, looking anxious, and presumably heading home. Bazil speculates that Geraldine is angry that she had also forgotten that the grocery store was closed on Sundays, exclaiming “oh Geraldine!” Joe can tell from those two words how much Bazil loves Geraldine. Knowing Geraldine is safe, Joe and Bazil relax. Bazil and Joe then take their time returning Clemence’s car.
Bazil’s love for Geraldine, which is so palpable in this moment as well as later in the book, offers Joe a model of a man having a loving and caring relationship with a woman rather than a manipulative or exploitative one. This serves as an important balance in a book where many men, including men that Joe thinks of as role models, mistreat, objectify, and even abuse women.
When they get to the house, Joe and Bazil see that Geraldine is still in her car. Bazil runs toward her, realizing that something is wrong. He opens the driver’s side door and pries Geraldine’s fingers from the steering wheel, then lifts her out of the car. Joe notices that she has vomited on the front of her dress and that the back of her dress and the car seat are both covered in blood.
In this gruesome description, Erdrich and Joe emphasize the violence that Geraldine has endured by dwelling on the vomit and blood on her dress. Joe’s attention to detail in this description underlines the fact that seeing his mother immediately after her rape has clearly traumatized him.
Bazil tells Joe to tell Clemence that he is taking Geraldine to the emergency room. He lays Geraldine in the backseat. Geraldine, though conscious, does not speak. Joe sits with her, noticing the smell of gasoline on her, and he insists on staying with his mother rather than going to talk to Clemence. Joe realizes that he rarely challenges his father, but Bazil concedes now. Joe holds Geraldine, who is shaking, and tells his father to drive fast. When they arrive at the emergency room, someone immediately comes over and puts Geraldine on a gurney. Bazil sends Joe to call Clemence. The nurses wheel Geraldine away to be seen by a doctor.
As Joe challenges his father for the first time while Bazil is intent on rushing Geraldine to the hospital, he begins to test authority in a way that shows his growing adult agency. When Bazil concedes, it seems like his decision may be primarily due to his distraction and desire to get Geraldine to the hospital quickly, showing how Geraldine’s trauma is part of what catapults Joe to adulthood.
Joe sits down in the waiting room across from a pregnant woman who is reading a magazine. The woman asks Joe if “you Indians” don’t have a hospital on the reservation. Joe tells her that the emergency room is under construction. The woman says, “still,” and Joe gets angry. He uses the phone in the nurse’s office to call Clemence, but no one picks up. Joe sits back down in the waiting room as far away from the pregnant woman as possible.
The pregnant woman in the waiting room shows that bigotry exists prominently in the area around the reservation, so much so that it is even openly expressed and normalized. The fact of the woman’s pregnancy, meanwhile, emphasizes the trans-generational nature of prejudice.
The pregnant woman turns to the woman next to her and audibly speculates that Geraldine has had a miscarriage or has been raped. The woman then looks back at Joe to see his reaction. Joe walks over to the woman, takes the magazine from her hands, rips its cover off, and then rips it up. Joe gives the pieces of the magazine cover back to her and walks out. Outside, Joe hears the woman complaining to the nurse. He resolves to stay outside until the woman leaves or Bazil comes to get him. Joe mulls over what the pregnant woman said, thinking it cannot be a miscarriage because Geraldine had had an operation to make her infertile. That only left the other possibility— rape.
As the pregnant woman hypothesizes that Geraldine was raped or suffered a (apparently violently induced) miscarriage, her significant glances at Joe seem to imply that Geraldine endured violence at the hands of a Chippewa man. Clearly, the woman has bought into racist stereotypes of domestic unrest in Native communities, and though she seems to present her comment as sympathy for a victim of gendered violence, she is actually using it to belittle Joe during this traumatic time.
Later, the pregnant woman leaves the waiting room, so Joe goes back inside and calls Clemence, who, upon talking with Joe, leaves for the hospital immediately. A nurse brings Joe to see Geraldine in her hospital room. Joe finds his mother in a hospital bed, with Bazil standing over her. Joe notices Geraldine’s swollen and distorted face and asks what happened. Geraldine doesn’t answer this, but tells him she is “all right.” Joe reaches out to touch Geraldine, but Geraldine yelps and pulls her hand away, to Joe’s dismay. Bazil gestures for Joe to follow him, and once they are outside the room Joe tells his father that Geraldine is “not all right.” Bazil says that Geraldine was attacked, but does not know by whom. Bazil tells Joe that they will find the attacker, and Joe agrees.
In this scene, the reader sees Joe confronting the reality of his mother’s trauma, both physical and emotional. He takes in her bruises and swelling, realizing that she is badly hurt. It is her fearful reaction to Joe’s touch, though, that makes Joe deeply concerned for Geraldine’s well-being. Although Geraldine tells Joe that she is all right, she obviously cannot make him believe it. Geraldine’s trauma moves her from being a comforting mother to Joe to a source of worry, and hence forces Joe into an adult parental role.
Bazil hopes the police will come quickly. When Joe asks “which police?” (meaning tribal or not) Bazil responds, “exactly.” Three officers arrive at the hospital—a state trooper, a local town officer, and Vince Madwesin of the tribal police. Bazil asked for the three different officers to be present since it was not clear whether the crime had been committed on state or tribal land and whether the perpetrator was Native or not. Bazil leaves Joe and speaks with the officers one by one in a private room. Afterward, the officers shake Bazil’s hand and leave.
This moment speaks to the confusing, overlapping jurisdictions that come into conflict on reservations. The line between tribal and state jurisdiction, which is rooted in the control of land, is one of the key legal issues that Erdrich explores in the novel, as it perpetuates the injustices of colonization and continues to fail Native people seeking justice.
When Bazil and Joe go back into Geraldine’s room, Geraldine’s doctor, Dr. Egge, is there. Dr. Egge suggests that Joe leave and gives Bazil a harsh look, so Bazil tells Joe to see if Clemence has arrived yet. Joe objects, but Bazil makes him leave. From the waiting room, Joe watches Bazil and Dr. Egge speak from afar. Bazil turns and presses his forehead and hands to the wall outside of Geraldine’s room. Dr. Egge sees Joe watching and points to the waiting room. Instead, feeling “resistant to authority,” Joe runs to his father and hugs him.
In this scene, like the instance when Joe challenged Bazil’s command and came to the hospital, Joe actively defies his father’s instructions. Joe’s feeling of being “resistant to authority” shows that he is beginning to experiment with his own adult agency and capacity for disobedience, though in this poignant moment, that defiance comes from a place of love.
Joe interrupts his narrative to say that, years after Geraldine’s attack, after he had gone into law and looked into his mother’s case, he realized that this moment was when Dr. Egge first told Bazil the extent of Geraldine’s injuries. After Joe hugs his father for awhile, Clemence arrives, separates Joe from Bazil, and leads him into the waiting room. Clemence tells Joe that Geraldine is going into surgery. Clemence proposes taking Joe home with her so he can go to school the next day, but he objects.
Joe breaks the linearity of his narrative to remind the reader that he is telling his story in retrospect, and so his account of events is highly subjective. As Joe admits to later looking through his mother’s case files again, the reader understands that Geraldine’s rape and its aftermath continue to traumatize Joe far into his mature adulthood.
Joe asks Clemence if his mother was raped, and she says yes. Joe then asks if Geraldine will die from it, and Clemence says no, but tells Joe that it can be “more complicated.” Clemence points out that Geraldine was hurt very badly and that some rapes are more violent than others. Clemence and Joe both cry, and Joe asks Clemence why Geraldine had smelled like gasoline. Clemence says nothing, then puts her head between her knees as if she were going to faint. Joe does not ask again. He falls asleep in the waiting room and wakes up later. He sees Dr. Egge talking to Clemence, then feels a wave of relief, sensing that his mother is okay. Joe falls back asleep.
As Clemence counsels Joe about Geraldine’s trauma, it is clear that Clemence, perhaps because of her identity as a woman, understands how violent rape like the one that Geraldine endured can affect not only physical well-being, but also can have detrimental long term affects on mental health. Meanwhile, Joe’s youth shows as he asks naïve questions and tends to fall asleep during trying times.