A new book by Louise Erdrich is always an event. Years ago I read and enjoyed her first two novels, The Beet Queen and Love Medicine and I’ve been reading her books ever since. I just finished the latest one, The Night Watchman, on the same day that Deb Haaland was confirmed as the first Native American woman to head the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I don’t normally write about anything political, but the timing was so fortuitous, and Erdrich’s book so wrenching about the relationship between Native American and the U.S. government, that I had to make the connection here.
The Night Watchman is based on letters that Erdrich’s grandfather wrote to 1953 to protest a proposed new policy regarding Native Americans. Ostensibly the policy will “emancipate” Indigenous people; actually it will terminate the federal government’s treaty obligations, opening up tribal lands for public acquisition. Erdrich has been writing about these issues for years, using fiction to illuminate the heart-wrenching stories of Native American lives. Her novels are often set in the tribal lands of the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewas in North Dakota, the tribe she belongs to.
In The Night Watchman we follow several tribal members: Thomas, the night watchman and Council member who is moved to write to the Congressional sponsor of the legislation; Patrice, a young girl who travels to the Twin Cities to search for her sister; Wood Mountain, a young boxer who loves Patrice; and others whose voices enlarge on the picture of reservation life. As the Kirkus reviewer wrote, “In Erdrich’s hands, daily life on the reservation comes alive, the crushing poverty and lack of opportunity tempered by family cohesion and the wisdom of the elders.” That wisdom is embodied in Zhaanat, Patrice’s mother, whose unusual hands express her intuitive relationship with the natural world. Erdrich’s writing, as usual, combines quotidian detail with penetrating and rapturous descriptions of the characters’ relationships with their surrounding and traditions. It’s a potent combination. There were several times when I had to take a break from the story, especially during Patrice’s odyssey to the Twin Cities, a true descent into Hades. If you’ve read Erdrich’s other novels, you’ll enjoy this one; if you haven’t, The Night Watchman is a good place to start.
To go back to the beginning of this post, Heather Cox Richardson, author of the daily blog Letters from an American, wrote about Deb Haaland’s appointment the morning after. Since you’ll be reading this at a later date, it’s Richardson’s March 15th post. In case you’ve forgotten, Richardson gives a short summary of the ways we’ve betrayed the Native Americans: the land grabs, the “removals,” the efforts at forced assimilation through boarding schools, and the disdain for Indigenous culture. It’s all in Erdrich’s novels.