The Night Watchman’ Confirms the Power of Louise Erdrich
The wisdom of a “waterjack” in 1950s North Dakota
Lastly, 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.
So concludes Louise Erdrich’s afterward to the powerful and important book The Night Watchman, her 16th novel. She poignantly captures the confusion and fear of a Native American tribe in 1953 North Dakota struggling first to understand and then mobilize in opposition to a Congressional action that threatens their existence.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
One of the story’s primary characters, Thomas Wazhashk, is modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, who was chairman of the advisory committee for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (indigenous name, the Ojibwe) in the 1950s. Early in the story, Erdrich explains that “wazhashk” is the Ojibwe word for muskrat, “the lowly, hard-working, water-loving rodent”, who “although numerous and ordinary, they were also crucial” – having remade the world after the great flood, according to the Ojibwe creation myth.
Thomas leads the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe in preserving what’s left of their world when the powerful Utah Senator Arthur V. Watkins resolves to settle “the Indian problem” once and for all, which he explicitly justified on religious grounds:
The time has come for us to correct some of these mistakes and help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied they would become.
House Concurrent Resolution 108 not only abrogated nation-to-nation treaties but also terminated American Indian tribes’ legal status as entities that signed those 19th-century treaties (coerced by the United States), which assigned them allotments of land “for as long as the grasses shall grown, and the rivers shall run”. The “termination acts”, as they became known, would also end federal assistance for the tribes and “relocate” tribe members to cities so they could “assimilate” – essentially finishing the genocide started by the first European conquests. Of course, this would all have an added benefit of freeing up valuable land desired by logging and mining interests.
And while the novel’s subject matter is unsettling (it includes references to horrific exploitation of another main character’s sister, who goes missing and is sought after with the aid of the revelatory dreams of her family members), the story is also quite humorous at times and lovingly and expertly told throughout. It shares this unique quality with another of Erdrich’s excellent novels about the trials and tribulations of Indigenous peoples in America, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
Even the deft references to exploitation have a humorous side, as Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau turns the tables on a low life and his crew after they coax her into becoming a “waterjack”: dressing up as Babe, Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, and “dancing” in a tank for the enjoyment of bar patrons. Here is a hilarious description of the man trying to persuade Pixie to take the job they spent a fortune creating the costume for and relating to her the key moves it entails:
Jack held the outfit reverently in his arms. In a hushed voice he asked whether she would try it on. She stayed in the doorway.
…Smoke eddied and wreathed around his head as he gripped his cigarette between his teeth and crooked his arms. Held both hands out as though cradling bowls of crystal goblets.
‘Up right shoulder. Down right shoulder. Swivel hips. Over-the-shoulder peek. Tush wag. Bubbles. Kisses. Surface. Breathe.
Down again. Playful peekaboo. Tush wag with seesaw shoulder. Swivel hooves. Dukes up. Mock fight. Barrel roll. Ox writhe. Bubbles. Kisses. Surface. Breathe.’
The Night Watchman delights the reader with a number of well-drawn characters and moving scenes – from Thomas researching, writing and conversing with a child ghost while trying to stay awake during the night watch at the jewel-bearing plant, to Pixie’s efforts to not only find her sister while keeping her family from becoming destitute but also to find herself and understand love and sex, to Pixie’s mother, Zhaanat, whose herbal remedies, Indigenous traditions and wisdom are a steadying force, to Wood Mountain, the young Ojibwe boxer who shares with his coach, “Haystack” Barnes, an infatuation with Pixie.
Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, the recipient of the National Book Award, the Library of Congress Prize in American fiction, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and The Night Watchman was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She also owns a lovely independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books. Her sister encouraged Erdrich to write the book “to keep the knowledge alive”, and the research included interviews with her mother about her life growing up on a reservation, as well as her grandfather’s prodigious output of letters to public officials and others, seeking support for the cause.
Lest anyone think this story is a relic of a sad chapter in America’s distant past, Erdrich notes in the afterward that even though President Nixon called for the end of the policy of termination in 1970, “the Trump Administration and Assistant Interior Secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney have recently brought back the termination era by seeking to terminate the Wampanoag, the tribe who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving.” At 4pm on a Friday, during a pandemic, when funds were desperately needed, no less. Even the “pompous racist” Arthur Watkins gets a footnote of redemption by Erdrich who notes that he “was instrumental in bringing down Senator Joseph McCarthy and ending an ugly era in American politics”.
The Night Watchman is ultimately an inspirational story, a portrait of ordinary people doing things that end up being crucial–and figuring it out as they go along. It’s also a beautiful body of language, thoughts and images, as exemplified by this passage describing Pixie making it home in a rainstorm:
Going barefoot was not a problem. She had done that all her life, and her feet were tough. Cold now, half numb, but tough. Her hair, shoulders and back grew damp. But moving kept her warm. She slowed to pick her way through places where water was seeping through the mats of dying grass. Rain tapping through the brilliant leaves the only sound. She stopped. The sense of something there, with her, all around her, swirling and seething with energy. How intimately the trees seized the earth. How exquisitely she was included. Patrice closed her eyes and felt a tug. Her spirit poured into the air like a song. Wait! She opened her eyes and threw her weight into her cold feet. This must be how Gerald felt when he flew across the earth. Sometimes she frightened herself.
(The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, Harper, 2020)
2 thoughts on “The Night Watchman’ Confirms the Power of Louise Erdrich”
Dear John, This review Piqued my interest. I will definitely read the book.
I admire your writing style (as always). And I am so glad to know you still have that great thing called intellectual curiosity.
Thanks for sharing this review with me. Its as good as any i have read in The NYT Book Review. So there.
Love, Ms. G
thanks for a great review — so well written! I look forward to reading this book.