Our Small Forever

Code Confusion as Female Trope in Louise Erdrich's The Round House

“Gynocide… is known by the colonized peoples of yesterday… the nations… off whose backs the history of men has made its gold.”
           — Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Our guide through Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is a young man. But Joe Coutts—real, tangible, effervescent teenager that he is—is birthed, definitively, from a female mind. Erdrich, in a move of great virtuosity, creates a tale that exists in both cyclo-mythical time and in linear time; in which the language and alternative reality of the spirit world coexist and intermingle with the language of the law; through which Christian crosscurrents traverse and mingle with shamanistic codes; and in which characters are both their corporeal, temporal selves, and universal archetypes who must repeat ancient patterns. Cultural stories radiate from the main narrative like ripples in a pond. And at its center—the round house. It’s no coincidence that the pivotal object is circular in shape: it is the novel’s many-chambered heart, and the story, in a sense, “orbits” around this richly symbolic monument to good and evil.

 We might call Erdrich’s inclusive, circular narratives characteristic of “feminine” writing, a genre Hélène Cixous defines in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The feminine writer’s speech, she asserts, “…even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or ‘objectified,’ generalized: she draws her story into history” (Cixous 881). In Erdrich’s world, we aren’t allowed to make phallocentric hierarchies of information or codes: varying systems coexist and compete, resisting synthesis. Neither Erdrich nor her characters are subordinate to western/patriarchal history’s “truth,” but by collaborating with it they manage to achieve a deeper truth. Years after his mother is brutally raped on a reservation and he enacts lethal revenge, Joe retells the story in complex layers, weaving folklore and supernatural intervention into a text also brimming with legal realities that we—Erdrich and her readers—must objectively measure and judge in our “real” world. According to Sarah Deer’s article, “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law,” the Justice Department has in fact under-reported the statistic that one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime (almost always by non-native men): “…the rates of sexual assault” she says, “…are actually much higher… [and] elders in Indian country [say]… that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence [emphasis mine]” (456). The matter is real. The matter is urgent. But Erdrich makes us feel this “gynocide” all the more acutely for not letting it fall merely into the “simple or linear… history” of legal or journalistic language. We feel it, as Cixous might say, in the body.

How does Erdrich accomplish this distinctly female corporeality in her writing? In “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Catherine Rainwater explores Erdrich’s ability to create an almost physical sense of “temporary marginality” in her readers. Erdrich’s texts, she says, contain structural features that “frustrate narrativity,” and that, “This frustration amounts to a textually induced or encoded experience of marginality as the foremost component of the reader’s response." Erdrich achieves this effect, Rainwater contends, chiefly through her use of “code confusion” (Rainwater 406). For instance, in the novel time works both cyclically, in what Rainwater refers to as “ceremonial time,” and linearly, in what readers understand as chronological time. Joe’s story begins with him uprooting the saplings “attacking” the foundation of his parent’s house, and ends with him, innocence lost, family shattered, driving out of town after the time-stopping rape and murder, and into a paradox: “…in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever” (Erdrich 317). In between, we hear an account of events in the order in which they occurred. But bits of family lore, dream sequences, tribal memories and ghosts—vestiges of “ceremonial time”—festoon the narrative, enriching it, complicating it, radiating from its center, or floating above it, in ghostly parallel. Early in the novel, when Joe and his father realize that his mother is missing, Joe remarks that, “…her absence stopped time” (Erdrich 3). In a sense, from the moment her absence is registered to the moment the family drives off the reservation, time is both suspended and sequential: the narrative alerts us early to time’s malleability. We are told at the outset that Mooshum, Joe’s eccentric grandfather and teller of a parallel legend of filial love and revenge, lives “…in a timeless fog” (Erdrich, 4), and that is the vantage from which he dispenses his crucial wisdom. Rainwater notes that Erdrich’s temporal idiosyncrasies hint at the narrative limitations of chronological time: “…linearity,” she says, “is often disrupted by many flashbacks, lateral narrational pursuits, flights of free association, and other indications of the failure of chronology to contain the story” (414). This kind of time confusion—combined with these pyrotechnics of craft—reminds us of Cixous’s theory about feminine writing: “Woman,” she says, “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (882). Ceremonial time set against linear time may disorient readers, but it’s this temporal vertigo that makes us feel these events—these conflicts—in our very bones.

Through marginality we come to understand the intersection of tribal, spiritual and legal justice. Each of these legal systems is incomplete: none alone manages to achieve perfect justice, but by forcing us to examine them all together, Erdrich creates a patchwork that approaches justice, however asymptotically. In a seminal scene, Joe’s father spends a few pages educating Joe, and the readers, on the history of Native American jurisprudence since European settlement, the slow, unsatisfying climb to tribal sovereignty. He informs us of Oliphant v. Suquamish, which “Took from us the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on our land” (Erdrich 229). In “Sovereignty of the Soul,” Deer remarks that since Columbus landed, rape has been used as a “tool of colonization and a tool of war against Native peoples and… as a weapon of conquest” (458). Fighting back against what Deer refers to as “…attack[s] on the human soul” is no easy task for Joe and his father, or for real indigenous peoples armed with limited legal tools. But the book proposes an alternative route to justice for Joe: what his grandfather refers to as “wiindigoo justice.” Wiindigoog, explains Mooshum, are “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others” (Erdrich 213-14). A wiindigoo must be killed by tribal consensus, and when Joe kills his mother’s rapist, his father, the judge, argues that there is a “traditional,” rather than a legal, precedent for the murder: “It could be argued,” says Joe’s father, “That [the rapist] met the definition of a wiindigoo, and that with no other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law” (Erdrich 306). We have here another example of Rainwater’s “code confusion.” The simultaneous presence of cultural codes—legal and traditional—that are “…epistemologically, experientially and teleologically different,” contends Rainwater, “…vexes the reader’s effort to decide upon an unambiguous, epistemologically consistent interpretive framework. Encoded ‘undecidability’ leads to the marginalization of the reader by the text” (407). Erdrich unsettles her readers by refusing to place tribal justice on a higher moral plane than legal justice (or vice versa). Even Mooshum warns that wiindigoo justice is often undertaken rashly or unjustly when tribal elders aren’t consulted, and in a queasy scene toward the end of the book, Joe realizes that with a bit more investigation the rapist would have been caught, and that western law might have garnered Joe’s family sufficient justice without recourse to murder. In this way, Erdrich’s narrative resists code hierarchy. “Narrativity usually includes an impulse to resolve… textual tensions through privileging of one code or through synthesis,” says Rainwater, “but Erdrich’s texts preclude both options for dealing with these conflicting… paradigms” (409). This resistance to pat resolution falls in line with Cixous’ analysis of the “woman militant”, who splits struggle open, “…so as to prevent… struggle for the liberation of a class or people from operating as a form of repression” (882). Arguably, the privileging of one system of justice over the other would operate as a form of phallocentric repression in that it reduces the importance of one code, implying the necessity of creating code hierarchy. Here neither traditional nor western law takes primacy. But nor do they synthesize: they remain discrete, incompatible codes, and the refusal to choose one over the other causes discomfort in characters and readers both. It causes, in Rainwater’s words, a “…permanent state of irresolution” (409).

Another set of conflicting codes Erdrich explores is the intersection between Christianity and indigenous shamanism. “Competing with the syntagmatic chain of references to Christianity,” says Rainwater, “is another chain of references to Native American beliefs about material and spiritual life, which… are not as distinctly separate as they are according to Christianity” (408). Nowhere is this juxtaposition of faiths felt more strongly than in the round house itself, a space devoted to native worship which, pre-1978, when traditional religions were outlawed on the reservation, could be hastily converted into an ersatz church. The space is a liminal crossroads between creeds, between good and evil, and between legal jurisdictions. Mooshum, talking in his sleep, explains its origins: a raffish figure of legend, Nanapush (a figure the reader is often urged to compare to Joe himself), was communing with a female spirit of the disappeared buffalo, who sacrificed herself that Nanapush might have meat to eat and the shelter of her body in a storm. “Your people were brought together by us buffalo once…” she says. “Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart” (Erdrich 214). The round house is a sacred cadaver: loss and memory inspired its creation. Ceremonies conducted at the round house still heal Joe and his Ojibwe people. But in this novel, what heals also harms, and what kills also saves, and we the readers must live with these contradictions. The rapist selects the round house as the scene of his crime because by doing so he will almost surely avoid prosecution: the land on which it sits is a tangled boundary of state, federal and tribal jurisdiction. When Joe visits the scene of the crime, we hear the round house “speak:” “There was a moment of intense quiet,” Joe remarks, “Then a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself” (Erdrich 59). The house, a living character in its own right, speaks to the novel’s protagonist from a tortured Native American past, both ancient and recent, spiritual and legal. Later, Joe gets direction from Father Travis, the reservation’s Catholic priest, about “Sins Crying Out to Heaven for Vengeance” (Erdrich 250). Both traditional and Christian codes cry out with voices that are almost human, pulling our hero in different directions, neither one louder or more persuasive than the other. Joe makes his fatal decision within the clamor of this chorus of voices. Rainwater notes that, “With several avenues of meaning remaining open, the text does not overdetermine one avenue of interpretation and thus endorse one theological view over the other” (410). Not even the novel’s characters definitively favor a single dogma: many reservation inhabitants, in response to Christian pressures to convert, “…decided to hedge their bets by adding the saints to their love of the sacred pipe." (Erdrich 250).

Time, religion, the law, exist on multiple planes, dipping, circling, weaving, intermingling with alternative codes in what Cixous considers a distinctly feminine manner. The woman writer, she contends, discovers a new history through the “…process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another… woman always occurs simultaneously in several places” (882). Paula Gunn Allen, author of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, comments on the inherent femaleness of Native American life and storytelling: “Traditional tribal lifestyles [and literature],” she argues, “are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal… American Indians [base] their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused worldviews” (2). This is a good thing, because the specter of male-dominated colonial tyranny and coercion hangs ominously over the world of Erdrich’s novel—over the round house, over Joe and his mother, over the Ojibwe people, over Erdrich herself—and Erdrich, as a warrior in Cixous’ feminine army, refuses to fight this enemy with the enemy’s weapons alone. In “American Histories, Native American Narratives,” ethnographer Arnold Krupat outlines the difficulty of squaring Native American history—which includes magic, circular narratives and ceremonial time—with western ideas of “legitimate” history:

Is it possible, then, to write history ethnocritically, somehow reconciling competing narratives and values? The question is of acute importance both to native people and to postcolonial historians who do not wish their work to be part of an ongoing record of might establishing right. For there is little doubt that the rationalist-secularist paradigm for writing history in the West has unfailingly trivialized native, indigenous, and traditional ways of doing and living knowledge, presenting to Native people the impossible choice, “be yourself or choose knowledge”(Kraput 168-9).

Erdrich proves that it is possible to write an ethnocritical novel. To tell Joe’s story in linear time alone, to subordinate traditional justice to American law, to give up native religious tropes for the tropes of Christianity, or to privilege any code over another in an effort to avoid code confusion—all of these would be examples of might establishing right: of subordination to the phallocentrism of the male western narrative. It is Joe who negotiates this razor’s edge of history, carves a semblance of justice into his “small forever.” but it is Erdrich herself who wears Cixous’ righteous armor, fighting her good fight, placing at the center of her novel—at the center of all these great, rippling narrative ellipses—an object that beats with a female heart: the round house, container and creator of stories, time and history.


Cited Sources

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. Boston. 1986. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith and Paula Cohen. Signs. Vol. 1, No. 4. Summer 1976. Print.

Deer, Sarah. “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law.” Suffolk County Law Review. Vol 38. 2005. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “American Histories, Native American Narratives.” Early American Literature. Vol. 30, No. 2. 1995. Print.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature. Sep 90, Vol. 62 Issue 3. Print.