In addition to Joe’s retrospective narrative, The Round House features many stories-within-stories: references to mythology, to novels, and to television, as well as factual and fictional stories told second- or third-hand. These stories affect people in multiple ways, but most importantly, they provide their listeners with behavioral and emotional models to teach them how to act in difficult situations and how to talk about their lives. As story consumption becomes insufficient to help people cope with their most painful experiences, some characters find catharsis by transitioning from story listener to story teller. Throughout the book, the reader sees how storytellers and listeners mutually benefit from the storytelling process, healing and learning from each other at the same time.
Stories provide behavioral various behavioral and emotional models to characters throughout the book, who then explore and (hopefully) connect with them. For example, when Joe, Cappy, Angus, and Zack watch Star Trek, the boys see the kind of people that they want to be: people like Data, who confidently mocks white people, or Worf, who solves problems head on. Some stories, like Mooshum’s tale of Nanapush and the Buffalo woman, pass down traditions and value systems that might otherwise be lost, allowing contemporary Chippewa people to model their own culture on their ancestors’ and to understand how their present situations (like the continued violence against women) connects to their past (like the story of Mirage and Akii). Sometimes these old stories provide morals intended to help prevent people from making the same mistakes, as when Mooshum tells Joe the story of Mirage trying to use wiindigoo justice incorrectly to kill Akii. Mooshum’s stories also obviously play a pivotal role providing a behavioral model by teaching Joe about wiindigoo justice and structuring how he thinks about his choice to kill Linden. Without Mooshum’s story, Joe likely would have thought about the possibility of killing Linden through different moral understandings, and he might not have killed Linden at all.
Consuming stories can also help people process difficult situations by giving them emotional models and helping them to understand that other people have experienced similar troubles. At the height of Geraldine’s mental distress after her attack, she requests that Joe read her sad, sometimes disturbing poems. Although Bazil tries to convince Geraldine to read happy ones instead, Geraldine insists on hearing stories that match how she is feeling, seeming to suggest that what is healing about encountering stories is not their happy mood, but how they help make people who have undergone similar experiences feel understood and give them the vocabulary to discuss their traumas.
Although Erdrich seems to be enthusiastic about how consuming stories can help people shape their lives or change them, she also suggests that certain kinds of stories are limited. She draws attention to these limits in the scene in which Bazil talks to Joe, after Linden’s murder, about whether he would give the murderer up to law enforcement. Joe, clearly burdened by his crime and the lack of resolution following it, looks at the books (predominantly by white authors) on the shelf “as if they could help us,” but then feels that he has moved beyond what reading literature can resolve, and into the realm of “Mooshum’s stories.” In this moment, Joe seems to feel that there is no book that appropriately addresses his feelings of guilt after murdering Linden, since his experience is so culturally specific, and the literary canon is predominantly white. Joe’s pessimism about books turns out not to be entirely true, since Joe later feels incredibly moved by the science fiction book Dune, but it does suggest that, for people like Joe who have been through intense experiences in very specific cultural contexts, the kinds of stories that they want to access may simply not exist in literature. Perhaps this is why Joe moves from story consumer to storyteller— in an attempt to create the book that he wished he could read, and in order to heal himself through that process.
Joe’s own narrative (which is to say, the entire book), therefore, could be seen as an attempt at the same catharsis he seeks as a reader, and an attempt to create the literature that he did not have access to for someone else. Throughout the book, when Joe draws attention to his narrative’s retrospect, he also alludes to his lack of closure after his childhood traumas. In one instance, Joe refers to looking back through his mother’s case files as an adult, and he alludes several times the fact of his father and Cappy’s deaths, clearly indicating that, for him, the past is still unresolved.
The understanding of Joe’s narrative as an attempt at catharsis could help explain a few noteworthy formal choices in the book, wherein certain stories are set off from the main narrative and others are included within it. Geraldine’s description of her rape appears in a dialogue between Bazil and Geraldine that Joe accidentally observes, and this dialogue (as well as the rest of the dialogue in the book) lacks quotation marks. This suggest that, rather than being direct quotes, the story is reproduced according to Joe’s memory as Joe’s personal (and emotional) experience of hearing his mother’s trauma, rather than a firsthand account of the crime. In other words, Geraldine’s story, as it functions in the text, is part of the trauma that Joe is trying to cope with and understand, so it becomes a part of his own story, and retelling it as he experienced it is part of his healing process. Mooshum and Linda’s stories, on the other hand, are lengthy third- and first-person narratives that are set off from the main text by titles, suggesting that the two stories are separate narratives from Joe’s, existing on their own. While they certainly affect Joe’s actions and understanding, they are not a part of his trauma and do not belong to him to editorialize, but rather to Linda and, in the case of Mooshum’s stories, to the Chippewa people as a whole.
Storytelling, Formality, and Writing ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Formality, and Writing Quotes in The Round House
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.
Behind them in the next room the shelves of old books stood… Meditations. Plato. The Iliad. Shakespeare… There was William Warren, Basil Johnston, The Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, and everything by Vine Deloria Jr… I looked at the books as if they could help us. But we had moved way far past books now into the stories Mooshum told in his sleep. There were no quotations in my father’s repertoire for where we were, and it was beyond me at the time to think of Mooshum’s sleeptalking as a reading of traditional case law.