Told at a remove of many years by a now adult Joe, this is the story of the summer he was thirteen, when his whole world was shattered an remade innocence-free, full of disillusion, and far more adult than it ever should have been. It is the story of the summer his mother was brutally attacked, raped, and barely escaped with her life in a crime that rocked the very foundations of what Joe believes in, his understanding of the justice system, and the way that the world works. Joe's summer is supposed to be spent hanging out with his best friends Cappy, Zack, and Angus, talking about Star Trek and girls but when his mother returns home from work unexpectedly late one evening, covered in blood and drenched in gasoline, his summer takes on a far more menacing hue. His father, Bazil, is a tribal judge and he enlists Joe's help sorting through past cases on which he ruled, in order to try and find possible suspects in the attack. Meanwhile, Joe's mother, Geraldine who has been in charge of tribal enrollment and verifying Indian heritage, retreats into herself, maintaining a blank-eyed silence about all of it, claiming that she didn't know who her attacker was. Of more importance than the identity of her attacker, is the fact that she doesn't know exactly where the attack happened. It was at the Round House, a sacred building for the Ojibwa, but also a place where three different jurisdictions come together: tribal, state, and federal. Without knowing the exact location and because the attacker is non-Native, there can be no persecution of this heinous crime. But Joe is unable to let the inadequate justice system fail his mother and his people and he and his friends start digging into the evidence. They uncover even more than they had expected and set a plan in motion that will change them forever.
In this work, Erdrich addresses the inequalities still evidenced in the treatment of and justice offered to Native Americans. She includes long passages about the history of Native American rights and about the culture and heritage of the Ojibwa people. Some of these passages move the story along and others are diversions that can feel out of place in the tale Joe's telling. There are a plethora of characters in the story and most of them are very well fleshed out although a few of them seem to exist only to offer up long digressions out of the flow of the narrative. The narration itself, being told by the adult Joe, yet through his 13 year old eyes can be somewhat conflicted, sometimes offering observations that are out of character for a young teenager but not noted as being from his adult perspective so many years later.
The issues raised here are deep and troubling. On the surface, Erdrich is writing about the definition of family; loyalty, both filial and fraternal; the confluence and question of place; and a history that continues to reverberate terribly today. But on a deeper level, she is also addressing the sacred and the profane, silence and stories, and most importantly the question of vengeance versus justice and the many permutations of injustice. She addresses the disenfranchising of women through not only Geraldine's (and Sonya's) inherent femaleness but doubly in Geraldine's case because she is Native American woman and so twice impotent. She captures the sad but inevitable change in a child's vision of his parents, moving Joe from the simple perception of his father and mother as strong and worthy to a disdain for their weakness and inadequacy and ultimately to a more realistic and better understanding of them as human beings with much more complexity to their characters than he had previously allowed. The pace of the narrative is slow and meandering and it is akin to watching a horror movie and wanting to tell the victim "don't go down there, don't open the door, get out while you still can." In other words, there's no question where Joe's desire for justice is going to take him. In the predictable aftermath though, the story takes a confusing and seemingly random twist which I still can't explain in terms of the themes of the story even though it was alluded to right from the very beginning of Joe's reminiscences. Accessibly written over all, this is a glimpse into a terrible truth of Native culture and all that informs it and if I found weaknesses in it, I still think that it contains the seeds of many varied discussions.