If Louise Erdrich isn’t America’s best contemporary novelist, she comes damned close. This novel, set on a western Indian reservation in the late 1980s is the sort of thing that stirs one’s soul. Reading it makes one skin literally tingle at times. The characters, the plotting, the language—all are pitch perfect. Certainly it is a great novel.
The story begins on a spring day. Thirteen-year old Joe Coutts is home with his father, digging out small plants that are ruining their home’s foundation. Joe and Bazil, the father, are light-hearted. Geraldine, Joe’s mom and Bazil’s wife, is late. She’s had a flat, they speculate. Or driven to a grocery store forgetting it was closed. They go to look for her, and she passes them on the road. They follow her home, still suspecting nothing. When they get there, she is still sitting in her car, unable to move. She has been raped. He attacker had doused her in gasoline and meant to kill her, but she had managed to escape. But the attack sends her into a long period of fear and withdrawal, a period during which neither Joe nor Bazil can coax her back to life.
So begins Joe’s journey from child to man. Everyone knows the identity of his mother’s attacker, but because the man threw a pillow case over her head before he abducted her, she doesn’t know exactly where the attack took place—federal land, state land, reservation land? It matters because the where determines who has jurisdiction.
Then Joe and his father see the attacker in a grocery store, and Bazil loses control, attacking the man and in the process suffering his “first” heart attack. After that, Joe knows he has to kill the man; otherwise his mother and father will live forever in fear.
And with the help of his pal, Cappy, Joe sets out to do just that. The denouement is thrilling and unexpected.