Louise Erdrich’s new novel, “The Night Watchman” (Harper, $28.99) is so engrossing, written with such deep affection for the Chippewa people, and populated with so many interesting characters a reader wishes she could spend time among them on the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota.
Erdrich, a native of Wahpeton, N.D., is often applauded as a leader in the contemporary renaissance of Indian writing. Her new book's release date is Tuesday, March 3.
Her story, set in the early 1950s, was inspired by letters and other writing of her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee. It was a time when the U.S. government, led by Utah Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, wanted to “emancipate” Indians by ending their legal status. Gorneau, an inveterate letter-writer and organizer, took a delegation to Washington, D.C., to plead their case.
In her Afterword, Erdrich writes that her grandfather’s letters “are packed with remarkable, funny, stereotype-breaking episodes of reservation life. Altogether, they compose a portrait of a deeply humane intelligence as well as a profoundly religious patriot and family man.”
That describes the novel’s nominal protagonist, Thomas Wazhushk, a night watchman at a plant: “He was named for the muskrat, wazhushk, the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent. … In the beginning, after the great flood, it was a muskrat who had managed to remake the earth.”
Although Thomas’ fight against emancipation is the spine of the book, the story involves his whole community.
Thomas sits alone at his desk in the empty, dark plant trying to make sense of the government documents that threaten his tribe’s way of life: “Unbelievable because the intent was, finally, to unmake, to unrecognize, to erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.”
Thomas’ niece is 19-year-old Patrice, who with her mother, Zhaanat, is also a night watchman, staying awake to fend off attacks from her alcoholic father. Zhaanat has powers so strong the tribe hid her so she couldn’t be taken to boarding school. When Patrice was attacked by teenage boys, Zhaanat saw to it that the leader ended up with a drooping face.
Patrice, independent and ambitious, is sought after by both the math teacher/boxing coach and Wood Mountain, a big young boxer who’s named for the place from which his father came. Tough-minded Juggie Blue is the cook/caretaker at the house where the teachers live, serving fragrant beef stews, breads and other dishes. And there’s Roderick, the ghost of Thomas’ classmate at boarding school, as well as the spirits of the elders who dance in dazzling light one night when Thomas locks himself out in the freezing cold.
Patrice is worried about her sister, Vera, who left for the Twin Cities and hasn’t been heard from. Both she and her mother dream that Vera is trying to reach them and they hear through the grapevine that she has had a child. Patrice heads for Minneapolis, where she is immediately kidnapped and forced into swimming in a giant tank in a bar, dressed as Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe. After a horrific experience in a room where a dog talks to her, and there are broken collars and chains on the wall, she returns to the reservation and joins Thomas and others on their trip to Washington to testify before a congressional committee.
Erdrich’s prose is so engrossing it’s easy to miss her story’s questions about what it means to be an Indian. At the government hearing, the Turtle Mountain delegation is quizzed about how much Indian blood each has. They can’t answer because nobody pays any attention to the topic.
Among the delegation is Millie, a college graduate who did an economic survey of the reservation and admires Patrice and her mother: “From her Catholic schooling she would never have known about Indians at all except as a bunch of heathens who were vanquished or conveniently died off. She’d hardly known her family and was as assimilated as an Indian could be. And people hardly ever recognized her as an Indian. So why did she firmly see herself as an Indian? Why did she value this?”
Religion, too, is part of the story in the form of two young Mormon missionaries, one of whom is smitten by a young woman of the tribe, much to his partner’s horror and disgust. Since Sen. Watkins is Mormon, Thomas reads “The Book of Mormon” and realizes Watkins believes “his people alone were the best and should possess the earth.” Thomas thinks the Mormon stories are tall tales, but so is the Holy Bible: “Thomas preferred their supernatural figure Nanabozho, who fooled ducks, got angry at his own butt and burnt it off.”
There is trauma in this story, but also much love. Erdrich shows the affection of Thomas for Rose, his wife of many years, and Thomas’s love for his very old father. Wood Mountain, the big boxer, falls in love with a baby who is not his own. For Patrice, love and sex are confusing and she doesn’t get much help sorting out her feelings from her girlfriends.
Trying to capture the spirit of Louise Erdrich’s writing is like trying to capture the dancing ghost images of the Chippewa elders. It’s too elusive, to luminous, too full of emotion and lyricism.
What can be said is that “The Night Watchman” will lift your heart.