Wow. I enjoyed this book thoroughly and could not put it down (as evidenced by the just over 24 hour turn around despite the kids being home from school and the 481 pages in this novel).
The best description I have is that it is a most compelling crime novel, but it is also so much more that it seems trite to call it a mystery novel. Certainly it starts out as a mystery novel, but about halfway through everyone (reader and characters alike) have solved the whodunit and then it becomes a book about retribution and justice. Along the way, there are some amazing emotional passages and commentary about the problems with the reservation legal system. Erdrich weaves a character development story with a thick plot and provides lots of education about legal intricacies and Native American lore in the meantime. Her prose is witty and poignant, but also beautiful at times.
"Women don't realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs," Erdrich starts out early with the idea that the heart of the family is the woman. She continues throughout to mention this reliance (which is so often true in life) on a female presence to bring stability into a family. In one sense, the story is about the change that the family undergoes after Geraldine's attack. It is a loss of innocence for Joe: "I was building lie upon lie and it all came naturally to me as honesty once had. As we were driving home, I realized that my deceits were of no consequence", but also a transformation within the family as Geraldine loses her own will to command and control the family center.
"I am reminded of the way I treated Sonja and about the way she treated me, or about how I threatened her and all that came of it, how I was just another guy. How that killed me once I really thought about it. A gimmie-gimmie asshole." A subtext through this (or not so subtle given that the main plot of the book revolves around rape) whole novel is the male-female power relationship. Sonja is a former stripper who is seen through Joe's eyes as not much more than a sexual being. UNTIL the moment of her strip show for Mooshum. At that point, she becomes a complex human who is aware of how others see her and is looking for a way out. I think that the way this unfolds is so true to life and accurate in the objectification of women, especially by adolescent boys (as an aside, I laughed out loud and made my husband read the passage of the bike ride in which the four of them have to take a break to jack off in the woods).
Coupled with this is Joe's masculine (and slightly chauvinistic) need to protect his mother. He wants to be the man and solve the problem before his mother can enact her own revenge on Linden. Simultaneously Whitey wants to take care of Sonja (despite his own bullying and abusive possessive tendencies). Cappy's death (and love for) Zelia also falls under this masculine-heroic mindset. While the Romeo/Juliette reference and behavior was a bit much, it was yet another thread in the differing versions of male/female love and power-relationship-struggle.
"While their moral standards for the rest of the world were rigid, they were always able to find excuses for their own shortcomings. It is these people really, said my father, small-town hypocrites, who may in special cases be capable of monstrous acts if given the chance." Great character assessment and again, so true to life. Erdrich populates the book with these gems of observation on human nature and behavior.
"None of us had ever slept in it. Even when one of my parents had the flu or a cold, they slept in the same bed. They never sought protection from each other's illnesses." I love the way Erdrich describes Geraldine and Bazil's relationship using the contrast between post-attack and pre-attack. It is not just that they did not care about infecting the other, it is that they did not "seek protection from", which is especially poignant given that (at this point in the novel) Geraldine is so scared that she cannot leave the protection of her bedroom.
I also liked her use of Indian (rather than Native American). I'm not sure if this is because the novel is set in 1988 (pre-PC awareness) or if it is just a personal preference on her part, but I liked it; especially the joke she cracks at one point about the label being Columbus's misnomer.
Overall, this novel is full of interesting and important themes all of which are well developed and well thought out.