The Night Watchman’ confirms the power of Louise Erdrich


Finally, if you ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document could break minds and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be convinced that we are powerless to change these dry words, let this book give you courage.

So concludes Louise Erdrich’s sequel to the powerful and important book The Night Watchman, her 16th novel. It poignantly captures the confusion and fear of a Native American tribe in 1953 North Dakota, struggling first to understand and then mobilize against congressional action that threatens their existence.

One of the story’s main characters, Thomas Wazhashk, is inspired by Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, who was chairman of the advisory committee of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (indigenous name, the Ojibwe) in the 1950s. At the start of the story, Erdrich explains that “wazhashk” is the Ojibwe word for the muskrat, “the humble, hardworking, water-loving rodent”, which “although numerous and ordinary, they were so crucial” – having remade the world after the great flood, according to the Ojibwa creation myth.

Thomas leads the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe in preserving what remains of their world when powerful Utah Senator Arthur V. Watkins decides to settle “the Indian problem” once and for all, which he has explicitly justified for religious reasons:

The time has come for us to correct some of these mistakes and help Indians to stand up and become a lovely white people as the Book of Mormon prophesied.

Concurrent House Resolution 108 not only repealed nation-to-nation treaties, but also ended the legal status of Native American tribes as entities that signed these 19th century treaties (forced by the United States) , who granted them land allotments “as long as possible”. grasses will grow and rivers will flow”. The “acts of termination”, as they became known, would also end federal aid to the tribes and “relocate” the tribesmen to the cities so they could “assimilate” – thus ending the genocide. started with the first European conquests. Of course, all of this would have the added benefit of freeing up valuable land sought after by logging and mining interests.

And while the novel’s subject matter is unsettling (it includes references to the horrific exploitation of another main character’s sister, who disappears and is tracked down using the tell-tale dreams of her family members), the story is also quite humorous at times and lovingly and expertly told throughout. It shares this unique quality with another of Erdrich’s excellent novels about the trials and tribulations of the Native American people, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

Even the deft references to exploitation have a humorous edge, as Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau turns the tables on a low life and her crew after convincing her to become a “waterjack”: dressing up as Babe, the Paul Bunyan’s blue beef, and ‘dancing’ in a tank to the delight of bar patrons. Here’s a hilarious portrayal of the man trying to persuade Pixie to take the job they spent a fortune creating the costume and reporting to him the key movements involved:

Jack respectfully held the outfit in his arms. In a muffled voice, he asked if she wanted to try it. She stayed on the doorstep.

…Smoke swirled and wrapped around his head as he gripped his cigarette between his teeth and twisted his arms. Held with both hands as if cradling bowls of crystal goblets.

“Top of the right shoulder. Below the right shoulder. Pivoting hips. Preview on the shoulder. Tush wag. Bubbles. Kisses. Area. To breathe.

Once again. Playful hello. Tush wag with shoulder swing. Pivoting shoes. Dukes up. Simulated wrestling. Barrel. The ox twists. Bubbles. Kisses. Area. To breathe.’

The Night Watchman delights the reader with a number of well-drawn characters and moving scenes – from Thomas researching, writing and conversing with a ghost child while trying to stay awake during the night watch at the jewelry factory, to the efforts from Pixie not to find her sister while saving her family from sinking into misery but also to find herself and understand love and sex, to Pixie’s mother, Zhaanat, whose medicinal plants, traditions and wisdom natives are a stabilizing force, in Wood Mountain, the young Ojibway boxer who shares with his trainer, “Haystack” Barnes, an infatuation for Pixie.

Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, recipient of the National Book Award, Library of Congress Prize in American fiction, PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and The Night Watchman received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She also owns a lovely independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books. His sister encouraged Erdrich to write the book “to keep knowledge alive”, and the research included interviews with his mother about his life growing up on a reservation, as well as his grandfather’s prodigious production of letters to officials and to other people, seeking support. for the cause.

The extensive Native section of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. (Photo: John Packel)

Lest anyone think this story is a relic of a sad chapter in America’s distant past, Erdrich later notes that even though President Nixon called for an end to the firing policy in 1970, ” the Trump administration and Assistant Home Secretary Tara Sweeney recently brought back the era of termination by seeking to end the Wampanoag, the tribe that first welcomed pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving. At 4 p.m. on a Friday, during a pandemic, when funds were desperately needed, no less. Even “pompous racist” Arthur Watkins receives a footnote of redemption by Erdrich who notes that he “helped bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy and end an ugly era in American politics”.

The Night Watchman is ultimately an inspiring story, a portrait of everyday people doing things that end up being crucial – and finding out as they go. It’s also a beautiful body of language, thought, and imagery, as evidenced by this passage describing Pixie walking home in torrential rain:

Walking barefoot was no problem. She had done this all her life, and her feet were hard. Cold now, half numb, but tough. Her hair, shoulders and back became wet. But moving kept her warm. She slowed down to make her way through places where water seeped through the mats of dying grass. The rain tapping through the brilliant leaves the only sound. She stopped. The feeling of something there, with her, all around her, swirling and bubbling with energy. With what intimacy the trees took hold of the earth. How delightfully included she was. Patrice closed his eyes and felt a tug. Her spirit spilled out into the air like a song. Wait! She opened her eyes and threw her weight on her cold feet. That must be what Gerald felt when he flew over the earth. Sometimes she was scared.

(The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, Harper, 2020)


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