OAKLAND -- Justice, the centerpiece of writer Louise Erdrich's 14th novel, "The Round House," (Harper) rolls like a boulder down an incline, splintering assumptions like so many twigs as it thunders to its inevitable, uneasy, resting place.

The newest book from Erdrich is the second in a trilogy. She is widely recognized for potent explorations of American Indian lives in books, poetry, children's literature and short stories and the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Love Medicine."

A lynching was the volcanic crime erupting in the first book, the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Plague of Doves." In "The Round House," the savage rape of 13-year-old Joe's mother, Geraldine Coutts, and the swirling tempest of revenge it triggers, lays the groundwork for Erdrich's clear-cut, coming-of-age mystery.

Joe takes on the situation and seeks revenge. His three friends and a cadre of characters are caught up in the chase. The shared momentum carries Joe and the attacker beyond retribution to a reality in which myth, legend, history and fiction co-mingle.

Shortly before her Wednesday appearance at Peralta Elementary School in Oakland, Erdrich spoke with candor and good humor during a phone interview.

"I had been waiting a long time to find Joe," she said. "I clearly heard his voice, from the minute he was speaking the truth out of the foundations of his house. He was helping his dad with an ordinary chore. When his dad said, 'Where is your mother?' I realized it was the book I had been waiting to write -- about a family; about a woman who is attacked and raped."


Advertisement

Erdrich believes the parental caretaker role should never be pressed upon the shoulders of a child but insists it's an inevitable part of life. About her recent battle with breast cancer, she calls her daughters' assistance "moving" but refuses to allow it to overshadow the book's central theme.

"I became aware of sexual violence -- how omnipresent it is and how difficult it is for women on reservations to gain justice. The historical underpinnings took years to understand, but the issue isn't over; it's even worse today," she said.

Describing herself as "a day laborer who occasionally gets flashes of instinct and illumination," Erdrich said the character who caused the most struggle in her new novel was the rapist.

"It was a difficult place for me and not a place I wanted to go."

Erdrich begins each book with an obsession: a need to "dive into the well of a character's heart." Occasionally, she returns to familiar characters to find new origins.

"If I have an agenda, it's to write something completely out of my scope," she explains, laughing and confessing, "I write sci-fi, and it's always a bust. I keep working at it, but I don't think I have the chops. I kind of like it, but it doesn't fly with editors."

Erdrich says mothering is a huge advantage for a writer, with "a certain set of ins" provided by its intuitive world and the "extreme awareness of protection amounting to anxiety" it inspires. As a mature writer, she's increasingly interested in issues of injustice and history and less inclined to heavy description.

Readers who missed the first book in the trilogy have no reason to delay reading this one. The two are connected, but not in a chronological order. With adult themes, it's also a book for mature, older teens, despite what she calls "the passages of language and longer monologues adults are more willing to enjoy."

IF YOU GO
Who: Award-winning author Louise Erdrich
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Peralta Elementary School, 460 63rd St. in Oakland
Tickets: $5 admission, applicable to book purchase at event.
Information: Call Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore at 510-704-8222 to reserve a space