Who is a Native American? What does it mean to be a member of a Native American tribe? What to men of the tribe owe the women, and vice versa? If the Constitution doesn’t apply to them, as it didn’t for much of the history of the United States, do Native Americans have inalienable rights? Or can the American government chip away at their sovereignty until there’s nothing left? Louise Erdrich wrestles with all of these questions and more in The Night Watchman. Like many of her previous novels, this book jumps from character to character on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota to create a group portrait of people living in the shadow of personal and tribal history.
The Night Watchman takes us back to 1953 and 1954, and primarily follows two characters. First, we meet Thomas Wazhushk during one of his shifts as a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant. It’s a good job, but Thomas uses the time between the patrols to do work that he thinks is more important: helping the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa survive. Second, Patrice Paranteau offers us a view into life in one of the poorest family’s on the reservation. While the Wazhushk family seem to be getting on fairly well, comparatively, the Paranteaus live in a tar paper house and eat whatever Patrice’s mother can grow and forage. Patrice’s job at the jewel bearing plant is the only thing bringing in money. These two characters, paired with the perspectives of a White teacher at the local school, a young man who has a crush on Patrice, Patrice’s alcoholic father, a mixed-race woman who became an academic, and a few others, serve as spaces for Erdrich to meditate on identity, duty, and other ideas—although I want to be clear that Erdrich’s characters are all fully realized.
The night that we meet Thomas comes shortly after he learns that Congress is about to visit one more indignity upon his people. Within twelve months, Congress plans to pass a termination bill for the Chippewa. This bill will strip the tribe of federal recognition; invalidate all treaties; break up the reservation; and divest the federal government of all social, medical, educational, and financial support for the tribe. (It really helped to have recently read Ada Deer’s account of her own tribe’s fight with termination, over at LitHub, before I read this book. Erdrich is clear, but a little light on historical detail.) Congress is trying to sell termination as a way to make the Chippewa into “real” Americans. Thomas and his fellow elders intend to fight termination to the last. Congress and White people have taken just about everything else; they are not going to be allowed to take away the Chippewa’s identity.
Meanwhile, Patrice is growing up quickly. To be honest, Patrice never really got much of a chance to be a child, with an alcoholic father and a mother doing everything she could to keep them alive. As the sole breadwinner, Patrice doesn’t have much time for either her quest to find her missing sister or deal with the longings of two young(ish) men who want her. Thomas’ chapters show us the macro view of survival at Turtle Mountain. Patrice’s chapters are a lot closer to the bone.
All this may sound grim—and a lot of is—but one of the things I like about Erdrich is that she always has comic relief in her novels. Some of that humor comes from older characters talking about sex; the old people in Erdrich’s novels always make me cackle. A lot of the humor in this book comes from the experiences of two hapless Mormon missionaries who are on the reservation to covert that Lamanites. (In another stroke of serendipity, living in Utah has made it easy for me to find people who will translate LDS-ese for me. I would recommend some background reading* to fully understand what’s going on with these characters.) I laughed out loud when the missionaries introduced themselves to tribal elders as “elders”–male missionaries call themselves this, even though they’re usually in their late teens or early twenties. I could just see the eyebrows going up. I also had to laugh at some of Thomas’ thoughts about the, um, origin story of the LDS faith. The people who sent those missionaries should have known better than to try and sell their story to a people who are master story-tellers.
The Night Watchman is not my favorite of Erdrich’s novels. (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is my favorite, with The Round House a close second.) It was a little too muddled for me. Erdrich built this book by blending her own family history with research she had done on the termination policy. Consequently, I think, The Night Watchman just tries to do too much while trying to argue its thesis. I tend to enjoy Erdrich’s novels more when they are more tightly focused on a character (like the ones I mentioned) or when they are much more diffuse, and just tell stories about characters that share a place and a time. Although this is not my favorite book in Erdrich’s oeuvre, I really enjoyed the characters, the pathos of their fights, the humor, and the supernatural notes. I also think that this book would be a great choice for a book group. There are so many questions to tackle that a group could talk about this book for hours.
* Or listen to the brilliant (but occasionally raunchy) five part series the guys at Last Podcast on the Life did on Mormonism.