“The sun was low in the sky, casting slant regal light. As they plodded along, the golden radiance intensified until it seemed to emanate from every feature of the land. Trees, brush, snow, hills. She couldn’t stop looking. The road led past frozen sloughs that bristled with scorched reeds. Clutches of red willow burned. The fans and whips of branches glowed, alive. Winter clouds formed patterns against the fierce gray sky. Scales, looped ropes, the bones of fish. The world was tender with significance.”
It has been a long time since I’ve read anything by Louise Erdrich. When I chose to specialize in British rather than American literature in grad school, it slanted my reading towards the other side of the pond, and I fell out of the habit of keeping up closely on American novelists, especially BIPOC writers. But getting my library card and signing up for a couple of book subscription boxes has helped to turn the tide back a little (though my poetry and drama reading still leans heavily toward the British and Irish).
The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s latest book, and it was inspired by a cache of letters written by her grandfather when the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa faced “termination” in 1953 from House Continuing Resolution 108: namely, the immediate withdrawal of all federal aid and services as well as the abolishing of the reservation–which meant that the land might be sold off to white farmers. The main protagonist and titular night watchman of the novel is Thomas Wazhashk, a member of the tribe’s advisory council. Yet this is not just a story about Thomas’s quest to keep his tribe from losing what little they are given in exchange for centuries of dispossession; Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau is trying to provide for her family, protect them from her alcoholic father, and also figure out what happened to her sister, Vera, who went to Minneapolis months ago and disappeared.
“Thomas mulled over the detailed report. The good news is we’re poor enough to require that the government keep, and even improve upon, the status quo. The bad news is we’re just plain poor. The good news is that the county, the state, and our neighbors in off-reservation towns do not want us on their hands. The bad news is this isn’t just because we’re poor. They don’t like us. The good news is we are sheltered by roofs. The bad news is 97 percent are made of tar paper. The good news is that we have schools. The bad news is that so many of us are illiterate. The good news is a cure was found for the latest scourge to hit us, tuberculosis. The bad news is so many parents died and their children grew up in boarding schools. The good news is we have this report. The bad news is also this report.”
There is also a host of secondary and minor characters, and occasionally this makes the novel overflow itself a bit; especially when listening on audiobook, it was occasionally hard to remember who a particular minor figure was when they popped up again three hours after their last appearance. But overall, this rich dramatis personae makes The Night Watchman feel like the story of a community that it truly is: every secondary character is richly drawn, from Wood Mountain the young boxer, to Millie, the mostly assimilated Chippewa woman doing her PhD in the Twin Cities, to Lloyd Barnes (aka “Haystack”), the white math teacher who also runs a boxing club on the reservation. So many of these characters experience growth and change over the course of the novel, and it manifests Erdrich’s deep affection for the setting and her family and tribal history, and her tremendous generosity towards her characters. While certain characters feature most prominently in the novel, you get the clear sense that Erdrich knows almost everyone has a complicated story and a detailed inner life, and gives you as many glimpses of such as she can.
This is also a novel whose tone is hard to describe. It’s historical, clearly, and also by nature political, and Erdrich does not shy away from the realities of poverty or alcoholism, or the threats of sexual assault or exploitation that young women like Patrice or Vera face both on and off the reservation. Yet it is also never mere poverty porn: however poor Patrice’s family might be, for instance, her mother Zhaanat is also a thoughtful woman and gifted healer working with traditional medicine, and they extend hospitality to anyone who visits their tiny home. This sense of warmth and communal care infuses the work without ever slipping into mere sentimentality (it probably helps that you also see these people bicker the way friends and neighbors do). Similarly, I kept expecting something terrible to happen to Patrice when she sets off for Minneapolis to find Vera; she doesn’t know cities at all, and she suspects her sister might have fallen in with rough or criminal crowds, and Patrice herself winds up half-coaxed and half-coerced into working an odd sort of burlesque job with its own hidden dangers. But Patrice has a hardheaded common sense that trumps any naïveté she might have, and a force of will that exceeds those who menace her, and Erdrich manages to leaven the darkness of these moments with some incredibly funny sequences and moments as well. Her book constantly acknowledges the darkness, observes it with a sharp, wary eye, but never falls prey to it entirely. It’s a tricky balancing act that reminds you that you are in the hands of a very experienced storyteller.
“Because everything was alive, responsive in its own way, capable of being hurt in its own way, capable of punishment in its own way, Zhaanat’s thinking was built on treating everything around her with great care.”
Finally, the last thing I appreciated about this novel was the way in which Erdrich matter-of-factly blends the material and the spiritual. Chippewa spirituality is taken seriously throughout: it’s Patrice’s uncle who has a vision of what has befallen Vera, and he is proven very correct; Thomas occasionally sees the ghost of a boy he knew in childhood at one of the terrible Indian boarding schools, and also has a remarkable visionary experience that seems to blend both Catholic and Chippewa spirituality on a frozen night when he’s locked out from his job; there’s a whole sequence in which Indian ghosts observe the goings-on in Washington, D.C. Erdrich treats all of this with the same calmly straightforward tone as the scenes of someone cooking a meal or going to work, and it adds to the remarkable texture of the novel and contributes, no doubt, to that complex texture of moods and tones that run through the work as a whole.
Perhaps best of all, if you encounter this in the audiobook, as I did, you get to hear Erdrich reading it herself, and she has, quite simply, a wonderful voice to listen to, low and steady. She doesn’t give a variety of different vocal inflections to her characters as other audiobook narrators might, but she captures both the solemnity and wry humor of her novel in the way another reader might not manage; every subtlety of mood and tone came across, and she ultimately provided an incredibly immersive listening experience in which the novel as a whole came to life.