No one can break your heart and fill it with light all in the same book — sometimes in the same paragraph — quite like Louise Erdrich.
She does it again, and beautifully, in her new book, The Night Watchman. Erdrich is one of our best American novelists; her gorgeously written, deeply humane books are a compelling history of the long dance between indigenous and European cultures that has shaped the nation.
Among a long list of honors, Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction twice, in 1984 for her first novel, Love Medicine, and in 2016 for her 15th, LaRose. The Night Watchman, her 17th novel, is set in the early 1950s on the home reservation of her mother’s family, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota.
One of the book’s major plotlines is based on the life and letters of Erdrich’s maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. Like Gourneau, the fictional Thomas Wazhashk, the night watchman of the title, is a member of the tribal advisory council for the Turtle Mountain Band.
A gentle, thoughtful man, Wazhashk is deeply devoted to his family and community. Between his rounds as watchman at the new jewel bearing plant that provides the town’s best-paying jobs, he writes countless letters, official and personal, in the elegant Palmer Method hand he learned in boarding school. Sometimes, the ghost of a boy who didn’t come home from that boarding school keeps him company.
Then one day in 1953 comes news of a “tribal emancipation” bill in the U.S. Congress. Wazhashk’s careful reading reveals that emancipation really means termination — if the bill becomes law, the Chippewa will cease to exist as a legal entity, losing their land and the few intact protections provided them in treaties “that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.”
That bill is not fictional, nor was its most vehement supporter, Arthur V. Watkins, senator from Utah. Erdrich writes, “Joseph Smith and the early Mormons had tried their best to murder all Indians in their path across the country, but in the end did not quite succeed. Arthur V. Watkins decided to use the power of his office to finish what the prophet had started. He didn’t even have to get his hands bloody.”
The other major story that structures The Night Watchman is that of Patrice Paranteau. Just out of high school and holding down a good job at the jewel bearing plant (which manufactures infinitesimal bearings of sapphires and rubies, used in wristwatches and in Defense Department ordnance), Patrice is determined to shake off her childhood nickname, Pixie, and to change her family’s life for the better.
Pretty much everyone on the reservation lives in some degree of poverty, but the Paranteau house, “a simple pole and mud rectangle, unimproved, low and leaning,” miles from the nearest highway, is worse than most. The family’s best times are when Patrice’s hopeless drunk of a father goes off on a bender for months at a time. (Thomas, her uncle, is the positive father figure in her life.)
Patrice loves and admires her strong, wise mother, Zhaanat, but she has no intention of sharing her fate: “She had seen how quickly girls who got married and had children were worn down before the age of twenty. ... Great things happened to other people. The married girls were lost.”
Patrice’s older sister, Vera, really is lost. She signed up for a government program that relocates tribal members to cities, ostensibly for good jobs. But, as Patrice discovers when she takes the long bus trip to “the Cities” (Minneapolis-St.Paul) to try to find Vera, it sometimes funnels naive young women from the reservations right into the grip of sex traffickers. Patrice will barely escape them herself, coming home without Vera but bringing Vera’s infant son back to the family.
At home, Patrice fends off two suitors. One is the high school’s math teacher and boxing coach, Lloyd Barnes, nicknamed “Hay Stack” for his blond hair; the other is his prize student, a Chippewa boy called Wood Mountain. Patrice thinks of Wood Mountain as a too-handsome, overconfident jock, but he reveals another side of himself when he becomes a warm substitute father to Vera’s baby.
Erdrich’s writing about the bonds of marriage and family is one of the greatest strengths of her fiction. She captures all the affection, teasing, pain and forgiveness it takes to hold a family together. As Thomas tells us, “You can never get enough of the ones you love."
Erdrich skillfully weaves together the stories of Thomas and Patrice as both of them prepare to travel to Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional panel about the emancipation bill. It will be a life-changing trip for both of them.
It would be comforting to believe that the battle Thomas (and, in real life, Erdrich’s grandfather) fought against that bill belonged to history. But, as the author writes in her afterword, “the Trump administration and Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney have recently brought back the termination era by seeking to terminate the Wampanoag, the tribe who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving.”
The Night Watchman
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 464 pages, $28.99