Monday, March 30, 2020

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced a bill ending treaties made with American Indian Nations for “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” The announcement called for the eventual termination of all tribes and the immediate termination of five tribes including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.” Author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather was the tribal chairman who fought against this termination while also working as a night watchman. He barely slept while he endeavored to save his tribe. Erdrich has based her extraordinary novel, The Night Watchman, on his story and on a fictional group of townspeople in rural North Dakota.

Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the jewel-bearing plant, the first factory located near the reservation. Patrice Paranteau makes jewel bearings at the plant.

“Someday, a watch. Patrice longed for an accurate way to keep time. Because time did not exist at her house. Or rather, it was the keeping of time as in school or work time that did not exist. There was a small brown alarm clock on the stool beside her bed, but it lost five minutes on the hour. She had to compensate when setting it and if she once forgot to wind it, all was lost. Her job was also dependent on getting a ride to work. Meeting Doris and Valentine. Her family did not have an old car to try fixing. Or even a shaggy horse to ride. It was miles down to the highway where the bus passed twice a day. If she didn’t get a ride, it was thirteen miles of gravel road. She couldn’t get sick. If she got sick, there was no telephone to let anybody know. She would be fired. Life would go back to zero.

There were times when Patrice felt like she was stretched across a frame, like a skin tent. She tried to forget that she could easily blow away. Or how easily her father could wreck them all. This feeling of being the only barrier between her family and disaster wasn’t new, but they had come so far since she started work.”

Patrice’s mother Zhaanat “was traditional, an old-time Indian raised by her grandparents only speaking Chippewa, schooled from childhood in ceremonies and teaching stories” Her job was passing on what she knew. Her job was essential or their way of life would end.

Thomas, too, felt indispensable. “He had been night watchman for seven months. In the beginning, his post as chairman of the Turtle Mountain Advisory Committee could be dealt with in the late afternoons and evenings. He’d been able to sleep most mornings after his shift. When lucky, like tonight, he even grabbed an additional catnap before driving to work. But every so often the government remembered about Indians. And when they did, they always tried to solve Indians, thought Thomas. They solve us by getting rid of us. And do they tell us when they plan to get rid of us? Ha and ha. He had received no word from the government. By reading the Minot Daily News, he’d found out something was up.” He’d struggled to learn that his tribe was targeted for emancipation. “Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.

Overnight the tribal chairman job had turned into a struggle to remain a problem. To not be solved.”

Erdrich takes the story of Thomas’s and Patrice’s struggles to support their families and their tribe and weaves in the tales of their fellow residents, a white high school math teacher who is in love with Patrice, a young Chippewa boxer who might make it big, Patrice’s sister Vera, who has disappeared somewhere in Minneapolis and may have had a baby, and Patrice’s best friend Valentine. Their stories form a complex tapestry that envelops the reader into her intricately created world.

In her afterword and acknowledgments, Erdrich writes “if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”  This novel does, in fact, give you heart.

This is the essential book club selection in a year in which we all feel that our own worlds are shattering. To fall into a book so important and spectacular is a blessing.

Summing it Up: The Night Watchman is majestic in scope yet its attention to even the most minute of details about each character, brings that majesty within the reach of every reader. Escape into Erdrich’s fictional 1953 world for a journey you’ll never forget.

Note: please, please, please order or download this book from an independent bookstore or your library. You’ll receive it quickly and you’ll keep an important part of our world alive. You can obtain a signed copy from Birchbark Books, the store Erdrich owns in Minneapolis.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: March 3, 2020

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus is the single best book you can read while staying home in a pandemic. Yes, it’s officially a children’s book and kids ages ten and older will adore it, but it’s so much more than “just” a book for kids. It’s a remarkable story that you’ll fall into as it takes you away from coronavirus statistics, quarantine rules, and worry about loved ones.

Prairie Lotus embeds the reader in the story of Hanna, a half Chinese, half white,14-year-old girl in the Dakota Territory in 1880. She and her white father have moved to the town of La Forge to open a dry goods store. Hanna dreams of attending school, making friends, and designing and sewing dresses. Many of La Forge’s residents don’t want their kids going to school with a “Chinaman” girl and adults and children overtly and covertly show her that they don’t want her in their town or school and that threatens Hanna’s father’s livelihood.

Hanna’s story closely mirrors that of Laura Ingalls in the Little House series purposefully. Linda Sue Park loved the books as a child yet she ultimately realized that Laura’s Ma wouldn’t have allowed Laura to become friends with someone like her. “Someone with black hair and dark eyes and skin. Someone who wasn’t white.” As a child, Park faced similar incidents of racism that Hanna faces in the book which is why those moments feel so real. Park wrote Prairie Lotus as “an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings.”

When I read the Little House books, I often found myself wanting to jump into them to rescue Laura. I was just as angered when children were mean to Hanna, but I never felt a need to help her as Hanna was up to every slur and imminent danger. She carefully measured her responses to slights and outright racist occurrences and she cautiously acted to diffuse or change her situation so that she didn’t need to back down yet remained safe. Hanna is the Jackie Robinson of the Dakota Territory. She's one tough character. She’s also a wonderful role model for the power of pausing to think instead of reacting. “Nevertheless, she persisted” could have been coined for her.

If you, like I, devoured and adored the Little House books, I guarantee you’ll love Prairie Lotus. If you didn’t love the Little House books, you’ll still love Hanna and Prairie Lotus. I read it straight through on a rainy, couch-bound day. I know I’ll want to reread it many times and it’s sure to become a classic. I loved Park’s Newbery Award-winning A Single Shard, but I love Hanna and Praire Lotus more.

Summing it Up: Read Prairie Lotus to escape to the Dakota Territory in 1880 and follow Hanna as she bravely stands up to fear and racism. Devour Prairie Lotus because it’s a tale of a pioneer girl who persists, that will take you away from your own problems.

Note: If you care about bookstores and their survival, order this and other books from an independent bookstore. I ordered Prairie Lotus from Mc Lean & Eakin Booksellers and it arrived almost immediately. Most bookstores offer shipping for less than a dollar. Since I've been staying in, I've also ordered and read books from Bookies and Between the Covers because I want them to survive this virus.

Rating: 5 stars

Reading Level: Ages 10 and up
Category: Diet Coke and Gummi Bears, Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: March 3, 2020

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:
"A Masterpiece." Laurie Halse Anderson