The Round House takes place on a reservation teeming with overlapping family connections, connections that are even more important to the characters because of the small size of the Chippewa community and its strong national identity. Although the families in The Round House are well established, many of these families are not nuclear, and some are not even genetically linked. On the reservation, the reader encounters a plethora of different kinds of families whose dynamics shift as children enter adulthood and as families endure life’s various challenges and traumas.
Ever-evolving, not-necessarily-nuclear families seem to be the norm on the reservation: Zack’s mother is divorced and lives with his stepfather, Angus lives with his aunt and his many cousins, Mooshum lives with Clemence and Edward, and Whitey and Sonja are partnered but not legally married. In this context, the Coutts household—Joe and his parents Geraldine and Bazil—seems like an anomaly. Joe’s family is “the perfect family … loving, rich by reservation standards, stable.” This stability dissipates, however, in the aftermath of Geraldine’s violent rape, when the family dynamic is upended. Geraldine becomes unable to fulfill many of the tasks that Joe associates with attentive motherhood, and Bazil is so preoccupied with helping Geraldine heal and bringing her attacker to justice that he stops paying as much attention to Joe. Joe feels that Geraldine is now “someone different from the before-mother,” and he suddenly finds himself trying to take care of the parents who always took care of him.
Although Joe finds himself without parental oversight, the fluid family structure on the reservation seems practically designed to absorb Joe when he feels emotionally orphaned. Whereas in another community Joe’s lack of parental guidance might be more conspicuous, other adults in the reservation community intuitively know to take care of him. Sonja states that she feels like Joe is her son, and she and Whitey take care of Joe by hiring him, making him sandwiches, giving him advice, and letting him sleep over. The Lafournais family brings Joe with their family to the annual summer powwow. Many other adults on the reservation have open-door policies for Joe and his young crew, feeding them when they drop by unannounced and trying to keep them out of trouble. Although Joe feels that he loses his own parents that summer, Joe’s ties to the community ensure that he is cared for.
The way the Chippewa community reacts to Joe’s parents’ absence reflects a larger trend of fostering in Chippewa culture. Mooshum recounts how his own family, who were Métis (of mixed Native and French origin), were taken into the reservation after a military conflict in Canada displaced them. Mooshum’s family was welcomed “by an unusually kind-hearted chief who told the US government that maybe it threw away its half-breed children…but that the Indians would take these children into their hearts.” In this quote, the chief imagines the tribe as adoptive parents of people cast out of white society, suggesting that, while European-American culture has a narrower definition of who belongs to its “family” and who does not, the Chippewa community welcomes orphans of all sorts and makes families out of all kinds of disparate people.
This inclination towards adoptive and makeshift families is also is reflected in Linda Lark’s story, as Linda was raised in a Chippewa family on the reservation after she was abandoned by her white parents due to a birth defect. Betty’s role as Linda’s true mother shows how parenthood is not defined by blood, but rather by choosing to play a certain parental role in someone else’s life.
Although this familial flexibility is obviously extremely helpful for people like Linda and Joe, Erdrich does imply that this fluidity can be destabilizing. Because of the flexible roles that community members play in their families, Joe soon finds himself in an unexpectedly adult position in his household. He takes on a parental role, bringing his mother food and reading to her to help her fall asleep. Though Joe loves his mother and is happy to help her, he also seems unnerved by this sudden role reversal, taking an increased interest in adult activities in his social life to blow off steam. In fact, his drinking progresses from an occasional beer with his friends to the drunk driving incident that kills Cappy. Though these poor choices could certainly be attributed to Joe’s young age, they also seem to be a consequence of him being forced to cope with a situation that is more stressful than he, as a thirteen-year-old, is equipped for.
Later, as Joe is weighed down by the emotional burden of having killed Linden Lark, he watches his parents interact at the dinner table, feeling “like [he] was the grown-up and the two of them…were the oblivious children.” In alleviating his parents’ suffering, Joe has come into his own as an adult. Because of that process, however, Joe also bears the pain of adult responsibility very early in life, which makes him feel alienated from the people he loves. Joe’s experience of coming-of-age extremely quickly suggests the downside of flexible families, as Joe’s topsy-turvy family situation causes him to grow up much too fast.
Parenthood, Foster Families, and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Parenthood, Foster Families, and Coming of Age Quotes in The Round House
Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation… As my father prodded away blindly at the places where he sensed roots might have penetrated, he was surely making convenient holes in the mortar for next year's seedlings… it seemed increasingly important to me that each one of these invaders be removed down to the very tip of the root, where all the vital growth was concentrated. And it seemed important as well that I do a meticulous job… It was almost impossible not to break off the plant before its roots could be drawn intact from their stubborn hiding place.
I was parsing out the idea, established in other cases and reinforced in this one, that our treaties with the government were like treaties with foreign nations. That the grandeur and power my Mooshum talked about wasn’t entirely lost, as it was, at least to some degree I meant to know, still protected by the law.
We were not churchgoers. This was our ritual. Our breaking bread, our communion… But now they stood staring at each other helplessly over the broken dish… If we'd sat down together that night, I do believe things would have gone on… Anything would have been better than the frozen suspension of feeling in which she mounted the stairs… My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think as we watched her we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.
I had imagined that my father decided great questions of the law, that he worked on treaty rights, land restoration, that he looked murderers in the eye, that he frowned while witnesses stuttered and silenced clever lawyers with a slice of irony. I said nothing, but as I read on I was flooded by a slow leak of dismay… Where was the greatness? The Drama? The respect?
Now you listen to me, Joe. You will not badger me or harass me. You will leave me to think the way I want to think, here. I have to heal any way I can. You will stop asking questions and you will not give me any worry. You will not go after him. You will not terrify me, Joe. I’ve had enough fear for my whole life. You will not add to my fear. You will not add to my sorrows. You will not be part of this… All of this… It is all a violation.
I should have told you I am proud of you… But do you understand that if something should happen to you, Joe, that your mother and I would … we couldn't bear it. You give us life…
You gave me life, I said. That’s how it's supposed to work. So let me do what I want with it! I ran for my bike…He tried to catch at me with his arms but I swerved at the last moment and put on a burst of speed that put me out of his reach.
The welfare stole me from Betty and I was alone in the whiteness.
As he dragged himself along … Nanapush sang the buffalo song although it made him cry. It broke his heart. He remembered how when he was a small boy the buffalo had filled the world. Once, when he was little, the hunters came down to the river. Nanapush climbed a tree to look back where the buffalo came from. They covered the earth at that time. They were endless. He had seen that glory. Where had they gone? … people had seen white men shoot thousands off a train car, and leave them to rot.
It was true, however, that Mooshum had still been a child when his family left behind their neat cabin, their lands, their barn and sweet water well, and fled Batoche after Louis Riel was caught and sentenced to be hanged. They came down over the border, where they were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Still, they were taken in by an unusually kind-hearted chief who told the U.S. government that maybe it threw away its half-breed children and gave them no land, but that the Indians would take these children into their hearts.
You’re crying, aren’t you? Cry all you want, Joe. Lots of men cry after they do something nasty to a woman… I thought of you like my son. But you just turned into another piece a shit guy. Another gimme-gimme asshole, Joe. That’s all you are.
I should have felt happy watching them across the table, but instead I was angered by their ignorance. Like I was the grown-up and the two of them holding hands were oblivious children. They had no idea what I had gone through for them.
In all those miles… there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember my mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure… I do remember, though, the familiar sight of the roadside café just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie… But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.