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Summary: Chapter 4: Loud as a Whisper

Joe and his friends ride their bikes out to Reservation Lake. When Joe enters the round house, he knows his mother was attacked there. He smells gasoline. He imagines the rapist trying to get rid of a gas can and, guided by this vision, finds the can in the lake. The boys comb the site for more clues. They smoke cigarettes and eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. They find some unopened cans of beer and drink them. 

Later, the boys bike to Grandma Thunder’s house, knowing the old woman will feed them. As usual, Grandma teases the boys with sexual jokes. Joe gets home late and sneaks into the house. Judge Coutts and Uncle Edward, Aunt Clemence’s husband, talk and drink whiskey in the kitchen. The men worry about Geraldine and speculate about another possible rapist, Father Travis, a new priest who is an ex-Marine. Drifting off to sleep, Joe wonders about the file that his mother had gone to her office to collect. Later that night, Joe looks out and sees a figure with silver hair. The next morning, Judge Coutts agrees that Joe probably saw a ghost. Joe tells his father about going to the round house.

Analysis: Chapter 4: Loud as a Whisper

Erdrich continues to develop the mystery at the heart of the novel and Joe’s relationships with his culture and the law using the round house as a central symbol. Once Joe realizes that the assault occurred at the round house, he visits it with his friends. Built through the advice of the tribal elder Nanapush, the round house allowed for the Ojibwe to preserve their religious and cultural traditions in secret. The fact that these traditions needed to be practiced in secret is disturbing, and it gives the round house some extra weight as a symbol of both cultural preservation and of colonial encroachment and persecution. More disturbingly, the revelation that the round house is the site of Geraldine’s attack recalls the established theme of sexual violence against Native women. The two facts together establish that the round house’s weighted symbolism haunts Joe. What was intended to be a cultural safe space has become the scene of a grisly crime made even more abhorrent by the lingering scent of gasoline in the air.