The Round House, which examines an instance of sexual violence against Joe’s mother Geraldine, explores the particular difficulties faced by Native women and how those struggles stem from an often-toxic culture surrounding sexuality, tribal identity, and gender.
Although Erdrich’s book is a work of fiction, Geraldine’s violent rape is part of a real phenomenon: Native women are far more likely to experience sexual violence than non-Native women and men. Often, the perpetrators of this violence are non-Native men, and because of rules against prosecuting non-Native people on reservation land, it is often impossible to bring them to justice. This demonstrates how long-term institutional racism and oppression directly threaten the physical safety of Native people (and Native women in particular) by removing consequences for crimes and leaving violent criminals at large.
Linden Lark takes part in this terrible trend, as he not only violently rapes Geraldine, but he also abducts and murders Mayla out of jealousy over her relationship with another man. Linden’s possessiveness over Mayla and his fury at her rejection seem to be exacerbated by his sense of racial superiority as a white man. Linden’s violence is certainly closely intertwined with his bigotry, as he “hates Indians generally” and he has called Native women a word so ugly that Geraldine would not repeat it.
Many other men in the novel, both Native and non-Native, mistreat women in ways much less severe. Curtis Yeltow, for example, sleeps with underage Mayla, using his power as a governor and an older man to manipulate her. Whitey, Joe’s beloved uncle, beats Sonja, a fact that seems to be known amongst the rest of Joe’s family and goes more or less ignored. Even Joe, the story’s protagonist, treats Sonja poorly. Through Joe, Erdrich shows the reader how boys and young men are indoctrinated with problematic senses of entitlement to women, whom they sexualize in ways that are often degrading and dehumanizing. Though all the boys in Joe’s friend group presumably receive similar messaging about women and sex, Joe and Cappy deviate in their approaches to romance. While Cappy loves and respects Zelia, Joe objectifies and manipulates Sonja, first masturbating to pictures of her before forcing Sonja to let him watch her strip. Although Sonja explicitly tells Joe she does not want him to watch the dance she has planned for Mooshum, Joe threatens to blackmail Sonja if she does not let him stay.
Joe’s actions surprise both himself and Sonja, and after the dance Sonja, angry and upset, shows Joe where her old manager cut her breast with a razor while she was a stripper. Joe begins to cry, and Sonja tells him that “lots of men cry after they do something nasty to a woman.” Clearly, Sonja associates the gendered sexual violence she has experienced, like the mutilation of her breast, with actions like Joe’s less obviously harmful manipulation and objectification. Thus, as Joe begins to adopt a more adult role in his family and his community, he has also begun to mimic the kinds of adult male attitudes that indirectly caused his mother’s rape.
Erdrich never directly resolves what makes some men more violent or disrespectful towards women than others, but Linda Lark suggests some possible reasons for this when she talks with Joe about her twin brother. Linda tells Joe that she thinks that Linden was spoiled by Grace’s guilt over abandoning Linda, producing a “monster” inside him. When Joe asks Linda about this, Linda tells him that not everyone has a monster, but that those who do can choose to keep it locked up. Linda seems to imply that some people are more capable of or inclined towards violence than others, perhaps due to the sadness, hatred, or bigotry they are exposed to in their lifetime (like Linden’s upbringing in the cruel Lark family). However, Linda implies that the control of those impulses is what really matters. Thus, though Erdrich does not shy from exploring and condemning the toxic attitudes about gender and sexuality that threaten women (and particularly Native women), she proposes that the onus for controlling violent impulses rests on individuals.
Women, Bigotry, and Sexual Violence ThemeTracker
Women, Bigotry, and Sexual Violence 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.
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.
We read with a concentrated intensity. My father had become convinced that somewhere within his bench briefs, memos, summaries, and decisions lay the identity of the man whose act had nearly severed my mother’s spirit from her body.
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.
We came to the tree that people call the hanging tree, a huge oak. The sun was in its branches. There were prayer flags, strips of cloth. Red, blue, green, white, the old time Anishinaabe colors of the directions, according to Randall. Some cloths were faded, some new. This was the tree where those ancestors were hanged. None of the killers ever went on trial. I could see the land of their descendants, already full of row crops.
You don’t swear on the job, said Sonja. You’re representing something.
We drove for a few miles. I asked what I was representing.
Reservation-based free market enterprise. People are watching us.
Who's watching us?
White people. I mean, resentful ones. You know? Like those Larks who owned Vinland. He's been here, but he’s nice to me. Like, he's not so bad.
Yeah, that one.
I suppose I am one of those people who just hates Indians generally… my feeling is that Indian women are—what he called us, I don't want to say… He said we have no standing under the law for a good reason and yet have continued to diminish the white man and to take his honor… I won't get caught, he said… I know as much law as a judge. Know any judges? I have no fear… The strong should rule the weak. Instead of the weak the strong! It is the weak who pull down the strong.
I won’t touch her, see? Even though some prick she's stringing along bought her diamond earrings. I won’t touch her. But she is dirty. His eyes rolled toward her, red with weeping now. Dirty. Someone else, Joe.
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.
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.