My experience of reading hasn’t always been the most enjoyable. It’s mostly been about impressing my dad, who hammered it into my brain from birth that non-readers were ignoramuses, dangerously unimaginative, and probably inbred. So I spent the first 20 or so years of my life forcing myself to read, and only within the genres of which he would approve. All the while telling myself that I was having a grand ol’ time. Ah…daddy issues.
Things changed when I moved away from home, however. It became necessary to reject my dad’s tastes, and to prove that I was my own motherfucking person. I also started working in bookshops at around the same time, so the idea dawned on me that I could…wait for it…read for my own pleasure. Crazy, I know. So began my first real literary exploration, which lead me to the book I want to talk about today. In my life as a reader, there is a before and after The Roundhouse.
It had been recommended to me by my then boss, who had just re-discovered the work of Louise Erdrich years after reading Love Medicine in school. Her description of The Roundhouse drew me immediately, which surprised me considering the heavy subject matter (a mother is raped and her son seeks justice). Only subconsciously could I see that it was the setting, an Ojibwe reservation, that appealed to me…because my dad had always been fascinated with Native American cultures. The novel had also been compared to “Stand By Me”, and my dad was a Stephen King fan. So yes, the whole “rejecting my dad’s tastes” thing wasn’t going so well, but I didn’t have the insight to see it.
What I could see, on the other hand, was an opportunity to shut him up. He might have had thorough knowledge of Native American histories, but he had never mentioned the modern lives of Native Americans. The Roundhouse was set in the 80s; it would give me more recent information and the chance to show him that I knew stuff too. And that he was a bit of an old racist too, for not seeing Native Americans as existing people. The best bit, though? The Roundhouse was written by a woman. Yes, by the very kind of human being that is genetically predisposed to writing second-rate literature. Oh, how I looked forward to shoving Erdrich’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination IN HIS FACE.
So yes, long story short: I bought the motherfucking book.
And the joke was on me. My father had dictated my literary experience so much, the best outcome to reading a book I could imagine was proving him wrong. But with The Roundhouse, I discovered another: falling into it head first. I wish I could tell you how or why it happened, but my tendency to analyse deserts me when Erdrich’s words are concerned. It never feels like she’s telling one story at a time; rather, she renders snapshots of life, which can never be single narratives. Emotions, positive or negative, are part of a big tableau, and for this reason not even The Roundhouse can be described as sad or disturbing. Erdrich denounces injustice, praises love, respects pain and revels in humour, but never dwells on any of them- she makes them fit together. The only things she favours are community and motherly love. In a nutshell, it was the first fictional world I never wanted to leave.
And this miracle led to another. I was enjoying the book so much I had laid down my weapons against my dad while reading; had forgotten about him completely, in fact. And for this reason, when I did discuss The Roundhouse with him, we were on equal ground. I finally had my own arguments, no matter how fuzzy, when expressing enthusiasm for a book. It gave me a voice. He listened. When his views of female authorship got him a glare, he looked down sheepishly and laughed at his own conceit. We moved on. During this talk, I finally became my own motherfucking person, but not by rejecting him; by accepting his influence and building my own tastes out of it.
My dad is gone. A copy of The Roundhouse is the last present I ever gave him. I found it in his flat after he died, my card tucked into it like a bookmark. I don’t think he had read it, but at least I got to give it to him. At least he got to see a bit of my adult self.
And look, I’m finally managing to talk about how much I miss my dad. I’m telling you, this book is magic.