In Louise Erdrich’s most recent novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Night Watchman, she again bases her story within a Native American context. This time we are in 1953, with one of the characters, Thomas, inspired by her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. The overarching struggle in the book is the fight against House Concurrent Resolution 108, which called for the eventual termination of all tribes, and the immediate termination of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, to which Erdrich’s grandfather belonged.
Championed by Senator Arthur V. Watkins, the proponents of the bill framed it as an emancipation for Indians, who in reality would lose even the little land the United States had promised them in perpetuity, and any support from the federal government. Through Erdrich’s characters we understand that it would mean the loss of home, community, livelihood, language, and shared culture.
As important as this aspect is to the book, Erdrich manages to incorporate it into the story in a manner that places the political struggle in the context of her characters’ everyday lives. So much of what they experience, both positive and negative, is tied up with their lives as Native Americans. They suffer from prejudice and poverty, yet they treasure the richness of their beliefs and culture. Still, none of Erdrich’s characters are ever simply symbols of Indian experiences. Each has a unique story.
Thomas tirelessly does all that he can to coordinate an effective response to termination, while at the same time working as a night watchman at the jewel bearing plant to help support his beloved family. Patrice searches for her missing sister, Vera, while also trying to decide whether she returns the affections of the men who purport to love her. Wood Mountain loves Patrice, and also her nephew, while training to improve his performance as a boxer. Millie does academic studies on the ways of her people, while figuring out whether and how she might fit into that life.
These are just a few of the characters in this community that we get to know and deeply care about. Although some are given more time in the novel than others, each person is presented in a way that makes us feel that we are slowly coming to comprehend what is important to each of them, and what motivates and hinders them.
Adding to the rich texture of the novel, Erdrich also includes lighter moments, such as the description of the two horses who run through a parade in their desire to mate. There are the human foibles, such as the two boxers who each fake an injury, hoping to surprise the other in the ring with their sudden recovery. Even two Mormon missionaries provide a light touch, as Erdrich empathetically reveals the difficulties of two young men who unsuccessfully, but earnestly, try to fulfill their duty.
Many reviewers have commented on the structure of the story. Although the resistance to the termination bill runs throughout the novel, the scenes are often short vignettes which focus on the everyday occurrences in the lives of different characters. Erdrich masterfully weaves these together into a whole, a representation of a community, but with attention to each individual.
The Night Watchman left me feeling that I had gotten to know a group of people with very different life experiences from my own, yet with whom I share a common humanity. It reminded me that past injustices continue, and their effects last for generations. Yet, it also gave me hope in the form of the knowledge that people can work against those injustices, and maintain their dignity and strength against overwhelming odds. I will not soon forget these characters.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.