This book is set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in 1988, give or take a few years. The protagonist is Joe Coutts, a thirteen year old member of the Ojibwe tribe and whose mother is brutally beaten and raped in the tribe's Round House. The Round House is a place of prominence in the tribe's culture as that is where a number of religious ceremonies are held, including the Sweat Lodges. His father, Bazil, is a lawyer and the town's tribal judge, making the violation that occurred even that much more horrific. Because Joe's mother is extremely unclear as to what happened and where due to her injuries and her seeming unwillingness (who can really blame her) to remember what happened to her, it's hard to figure out who committed the offense and in what jurisdiction each event happened. This is significant because it could be a federal offense, a state offense or a tribal offense, with the ramifications of each being extremely different (for instance, on Indian land, whites can't be prosecuted). Joe watches, seemingly helplessly, as his mother sinks further and further into depression - so badly that she can't get out of bed, let alone care for herself. As Joe watches this, he and his friends decide to take matters into their own hands and to seek out the perpetrator and effect their own punishment.
THis book was absolutely masterful. It is both a coming of age story and a detective novel combined in one. In the first chapters, we meet Joe as a young and innocent boy and the picture that Erdrich paints, while using simple language, paints a very poignant picture of a boy that's just hanging out with his friends. That is taken away from him brutally when his mother is attacked and you feel the loss immensely. Her stories and characters are seemingly universal - I mean, you get that boys sneak cigarettes and beer - but you also know that the impact and experience of Joe is unique to him because of who he is - a Native American boy growing up on a reservation near the turn of the century. I loved how she also used the novel to educate the reader - possibly a majority white audience - about the struggles that Native Americans face, particularly poverty and assault related issues. This book is highly recommended.