Two years ago, Louise Erdrich thought she would never write again.
The National Book Award-winning author of The
Round House and more than a dozen other treasured novels
had abandoned several manuscripts and given up. She was certain
her impetus had disintegrated.
Fortunately for us, she was wrong.
One day, she woke from her depressed slumber impelled to read a
cache of letters written in the middle of the 20th century by her
grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. He had been chairman of the Turtle
Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee during the tribes
modern-day fight for survival. The threat at that time was legal,
but it was as potentially disastrous as earlier assaults: In 1953,
the U.S. House passed a resolution
declaring that a number of tribes should be rapidly freed
from Federal supervision.
Ah, blessed freedom!
Beneath that glorious promise of emancipation lurked the governments
true plan: the unilateral abrogation of treaties, the wholesale
termination of tribes rights and the abandonment of Native
Americans already impoverished by centuries of genocidal policies.
Reminded of that dark era and her grandfathers heroic role
in saving the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota, Erdrich
knew she had found the inspiration for her next book.
Erdrichs career has been an act of resistance against racism
the hateful and the sentimental varieties and the
implacable force of white Americas ignorance. In one powerful
book after another, she has carved Indians lives, histories
and stories back into our national literature, a canon once determined
to wipe them away.
Night Watchman is more overtly political it even
includes a trip to Washington, D.C. but its a political
novel reconceived as only Erdrich could.
Although the legislative history and the congressional battles
of Indian termination rumble over the horizon, the story stays focused
on folks living on the Turtle Mountain reservation. For most of
them, the immediate concerns of making a living, holding a family
together and finding someone to love feel more pressing than the
latest attack from a collection of white congressmen 1,500 miles
But Thomas Wazhashk, the tribal leader at the center of this novel,
understands the legislative danger early and fully. Thomas, a character
based on Erdrichs grandfather, works as a night watchman in
a jewel bearing factory, the first manufacturing plant on the reservation.
The hours are long, always lonely, sometimes spooky.
As usual, modern realism and Native spirituality mingle harmoniously
in Erdrichs pages without calling either into question. Between
making his rounds and contending with a ghost from his old boarding-school
days, Thomas struggles to stay awake so that he can write letters
to local and national politicians, business leaders, scholars anyone
who might help him mount an effective defense against Congress
plans to terminate his tribe.
We have survived smallpox, the Winchester repeating rifle,
the Hotchkiss gun, and tuberculosis, Thomas thinks. We
have survived the flu epidemic of 1918, and fought in four or five
deadly United States wars. But at last we will be destroyed by a
collection of tedious words.
Not if he can help it.
As Thomas toils away, drifting between lobbying and dreaming, the
novel moves out into the community, capturing the lives of his friends
and relatives. This tapestry of stories is a signature of Erdrichs
literary craft, but she does it so beautifully that its tempting
to forget how remarkable it is.
Chapter by chapter, we encounter characters interrelated but traveling
along their own paths.
There is Lloyd Barnes, a white man teaching math on the reservation,
aware of his outsider status but not inhibited by it. He also runs
a gym in the community center. His best former student is now his
best boxer, a young man named Wood Mountain, who might be famous
someday if he could keep away from spirits.
Both coach and boxer are in love with the novels heroine,
Patrice Paranteau, a smart, intimidatingly strong young woman who
has no interest in either of them, thank you very much.
Night Watchman author Louise Erdrich. (Hilary Abe)
Erdrich weaves such charming romantic comedy from this situation,
catching the anxious frustration of these suitors and Patrices
withering disdain for them both.
Although only 19, Patrice has more serious concerns on her mind.
She is the breadwinner for her mother and little brother, and the
main protector when her alcoholic father periodically crashes back
Most alarming, her sister, Vera, headed off to Minneapolis months
ago, and no one has heard anything from her. When her uncle perceives
in a dream vision that Vera is in trouble, Patrice knows she must
set out for the city to find her and bring her home.
This adventure into a gritty urban underworld demonstrates how
wide the borders of Erdrichs narrative territory are.
As a naive teenager who has never left the reservation, Patrice
would seem an easy mark for crooks and pimps, but her quest for
her sister thwarts our expectations.
Scenes shift nimbly from weird comedy to unspeakable horror, somehow
without diminishing either. At one point, Erdrich suggests that
this is an essentially Chippewa attitude, where the strangeness
was also humorous and the danger surrounding this entire situation
was of the sort that you might laugh at, even though you could also
The survival of the Turtle Mountain reservation is a matter of
historical record; the survival of Patrice and her sister is not
Still, The Night Watchman has little interest in exploiting
that suspense. This narrators vision is more capacious, reaching
out across a whole community in tender conversation with itself.
Expecting to follow the linear trajectory of a mystery, we discover
in Erdrichs fiction something more organic, more humane. Like
her characters, we find ourselves laughing in that desperate
high-pitched way people laugh when their hearts are broken.