I went into this book (which won the 2012 National Book Award) completely blind, on purpose. When it comes to books that I expect a lot from (hype is one thing, collecting a bunch of awards is another), I sometimes prefer to not read even the jacket copy. So i had no idea what this book was about. My immediate association was to think of Patrick Swayze (Roadhouse; round-house kicks in Roadhouse), and thankfully that was way off the mark.
Before anything else, I was struck by Erdrich’s descriptive prose. Here’s the beautiful opening paragraph:
Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. They had grown into the unseen walls and it was difficult to pry them loose. My father wiped his palm across his forehead and damned their toughness. I was using a rusted old dandelion fork with a splintered handle; he wielded a long, slim iron fireplace poker that was probably doing more harm than good. 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’s a great description that does a great job of foreshadowing the story to come. This is a story about about a family’s seemingly futile struggle against unseen forces and the pull of decay. It centers around Joe, a young Native American teen on the cusp of maturation, who suddenly finds his world crashing down around him–and the gritty realities of his world weighing on him heavily.
In the early pages of the book, Joe’s mother survives a violent rape rape after which her attacker attempted to burn her alive. She refuses to speak about the incident, and Joe and his father struggle to find a sense of normalcy amidst all the upheaval, to mend a wound they can’t precisely locate. Without a statement from Joe’s mother, the police investigation barely moves, and further complicating matters, it is unclear where the assault physically took place: a very big deal as Joe’s family is Native American, and if the act was perpetrated on reservation land by a white man, tribal law would lack the authority to prosecute. Young Joe and his friends set out to solve what the rest of the reservation wishes to have forgotten as quickly as possible.
It’s extremely heavy subject matter, and Erdrich continually take her plot and characters in directions that go against some of the more common tropes and patterns of such books. For all the gravity and description-saturated prose, the book is a breezy read, and has ample levity and humor dotting the pages. Moreover it pulls off what all to often books get unnecessary credit for (cough cough): telling a modern bildungsroman while maintaining a more sophisticated register.
The book’s greatest strength is the skill with which Erdrich draws her characters. Joe and the other boys are genuinely funny and believable young teens; some of the local down-and-outs demand and deserve the reader’s empathy; the horny tribal elders are downright hilarious; Joe’s judge father, Bazil, speaks with the wisdom and conviction of Atticus Finch. It’s perhaps not as distinctive, and the subject matter and setting are quite different, but I found myself constantly thinking of Oscar Wao while reading this.
I’m not sure how good the other nominees for the NBA were this year, but this is a book that excels on multiple levels. It’s no surprise at all that the judges of the National Book Foundation considered it to be the best book of the year. I’d recommend it to just about anybody.