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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