I don’t remember the last time I’ve had such a string of fantastic book club picks in a row! I mean, none of them were “omg read this now” picks (well, except for this month’s Gone Girl, but I read that a while ago), but the last few have been really good, think-y, I want to learn more things books and I like that.
This, obviously, is no exception.
I had seen this book when it came into the library and had already been getting some good press, but I didn’t really know what it was supposed to be about and so I had no plans to read it. And then of course when it came time to find it for my book club, I wasn’t able to procure a library print or e-book or audiobook or e-audiobook copy, even with a month’s notice, and I was very lucky to have a friend with a library copy to lend me two days before the meeting. I was pretty sure I was not going to finish the book in time, especially upon opening it up and finding out that it starts with a rape. Oh goody, I said, this is going to be a tough one.
But it’s not, really, and that’s probably largely because the story is told by the 13-year-old son of the raped woman, so necessarily we don’t get too much of that gory detail of awfulness. What we see is quite a bit of our protagonist, Joe, not seeing his mother, his mother avoiding life and sunshine and happiness at all costs, and it’s heart-rending and terrible in a completely different way.
Luckily all that depressing-ness is offset by a slightly lighter (if not happier) plot, which is the hunt for the rapist and a discussion of whether anything can even be done about him, because this story takes place on an Indian reservation and it turns out that laws are complicated on Indian reservations. Joe’s dad, a judge, explains to him that depending on who did it (an Indian or a white man) and where (on tribal land, on state land, on sold land), one of several jurisdictions could take on the case. Or it could remain mysterious and no jurisdiction could touch it. Joe finds this as fantastic as it is and sets off on his own mission to discover who hurt his mother, get that person punished, and get his mom back.
Then, interspersed with all of that, we get a story about Joe’s regular life — his family, his friends, his interactions with the local church, a little bit of Indian ceremony, and even an interlude or two with a myth-like story. Some parts are hilarious and cringe-inducing, like all of the parts with old people talking sex; some are amusing and happy, like Joe’s friend’s first church confession; and then certain bits remind you that life is depressing in so many different ways. This book, it toys with my emotions! (My emotions!)
I loved the way this book was written, with a simple plot to keep the story moving but with a larger focus on Indian life and notions of justice. I also liked that the book was largely not predictable, and where I could predict what was going to happen, the experience was less “Called it!” and more a slow burn of “That’s not really going to happen, is it? Oh, please don’t let that happen. Oh no, it’s really happening!” I also also liked that this book takes place in 1988 and that there are shoutouts to Star Trek and other nerdy things. Go nerds!
On the downside, I was disappointed with the way the rape investigation story line wrapped up, both because I just didn’t want what happened to have happened and also because I found it more than a bit unbelievable (but then, it could just be a myth story). I was also a bit surprised by the actual ending of the novel, which comes out of nowhere and happens so fast that we held off talking about it at the start of book club so one member could finish the ten pages in which that thing happens.
But overall I enjoyed the book, and I think it will be the start of some Erdrich backlist binge reading because this woman can write a story.
Recommendation: For readers who don’t mind having their hearts ripped out a little.