The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

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.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


* Or listen to the brilliant (but occasionally raunchy) five part series the guys at Last Podcast on the Life did on Mormonism.

Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

Trigger warning for rape and suicide.

I am continuing my out-of-order dive into Louise Erdrich’s collections of interlinked stories featuring characters on an Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation somewhere in the Dakotas. Love Medicine is one of the earliest of these; it includes stories originally published as far back as 1984. Several of the stories in this collection is, as the title hints, about love. But this collection also revolves around love’s darker implications: jealousy, grief, and unrequited love.

Love Medicine spans 1934 to 1985. Over the course of the novel, I saw two sides form up. On one side is the sprawling family of Lulu Nanapush. On the other is the equally sprawling, but more dysfunctional, family of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw. In between these two women is Nector Kashpaw. Nector was in love with Lulu before he literally bumped into Marie and, somehow, ended up married to her. Nector loves Lulu for the rest of his life. He also loves Marie. Marie loves him and is jealous of his love for Lulu. Lulu also loves Nector, but her love is more expansive than either Nector’s or Marie’s. This tangled, mostly unspoken web affects the original trio and appears to affect generations of their descendants.

The novel begins with a story that encapsulates much of the emotional range of the rest of Love Medicine. June Morrissey is traveling back to the reservation. The last of her money was spent on the bus ticket. At one of the stops, she meets a man and decides to have sex with him. After the act and the man suddenly falls asleep on her, June slips out of the warm truck and walks away into a snowy night. She ends up freezing to death. This first story shows us sexual need, a hint of addiction, and death by either misadventure or suicide. As the collection progresses, we see these actions and emotions repeated in variations.

In some stories, it seems as though characters were doomed because of their DNA or their parents’ sins. In others, we see characters wrestling deeply with grief for their lost loved ones. We also see a deeply broken culture—a recurrent theme in Erdrich’s novels. These characters have nothing to turn to when they have no idea what to do next. The local Catholic church is warped by brutal mysticism. No one knows the old ways anymore. So many of the characters are just following their emotional impulses. These emotions can be deadly; people drown in them. And, as one character tells us later in the collection, drowning is the worst death for a Chippewa.

Love Medicine is depressing. Though there are moments of humor to lighten things up, this collection is like having one’s face pressed up against a window to watch miserable people on the other side and not being able to look away for relief. The scholarly literature I read when I was helping students do research on The Round House has taught me that Love Medicine is an important book in the overall series. In the end, Love Medicine is a hard book to read but necessary, if one is to fully understand the world Erdrich created.

LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

26116430When I read a book, I almost always try to work out some kind of unified theory of the story I’m reading. I try to figure out what the book has to say, how it says it, and what the point of it all is. Every now and then, however, I come across a book that resists this. LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, is just such a book. I read most of the book trying to puzzle out the book’s message. When it didn’t come to me, I tried to force things and ended up with a headache because nothing I thought of seemed to fit. I still have no idea how the pieces of this book are supposed to fit together.

LaRose begins with the kind of tragedy that destroys people. Landreaux Iron has just accidentally killed his neighbor and friend’s son in a hunting accident. To make restitution, Landreaux and his wife send their charmed youngest son, LaRose, to live with them. Of course, it takes time more than anything else for the dead boy’s family, the Raviches, to come to terms with their loss and for Landreaux to sort of make piece with the accident. In the middle, poor LaRose is forced to take on more emotional burdens than anyone that young should ever have to deal with. Everyone, even LaRose, believes that he can cope because everyone with that name (he’s the fifth) has possessed a strong understanding of the spirit world and what the right thing to do is.

As the Ravich and Iron families struggle their way back to normalcy, we see scenes of the original LaRose’s life. The first LaRose was traded to a White man for alcohol in 1839, who she later helped poison, spent time in a boarding school to “civilize” her, before dying of tuberculosis. We also meet Romeo Puyat, a self-described bottom feeder who steals prescription drugs, siphons gas, eats scavenged food, and constantly searches for information with which to blackmail people. Meanwhile, Father Travis, a character who appeared in The Round House, struggles with the futility of his mission on the reservation; a descendant of the original LaRose tries to reclaim her remains from a museum; and Maggie Ravich struggles to transform herself from a scowling badass into a more mature, kind badass.

All of the different threads never really came together for me, even though the connections between them are clear. They just never gelled. I could kind of see why we had to learn about Romeo and Father Travis. The parts about the original LaRose, which I loved, were dropped fairly early on. I’m still not sure what they were doing there. If someone forced me to say what I thought this book was about, I would probably say something about forced assimilation, the fragility of facades, and/or enduring the unendurable. Several characters in this novel are transplanted into foreign environments, like the inhumane boarding schools or the Ravich home, where they have to rapidly adapt in order to emotionally survive. There are also characters who feel that the face they present to the world, like a nonjudgmental priestly presence or characters holding on to sanity by their fingernails. Both of these characters groups are enduring terrible stress, but the rushed ending felt like all of the plot threads were tied together and cut off before the full pattern of the book appeared.

It’s not a bad thing when a book has a lot going on. After all, Italo Calvino defines a classic as “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” But all those moving parts have to work together, to make sense in close proximity to each other, or the whole thing just fails. LaRose doesn’t achieve that sense of unity. I feel frustrated by the novel more than anything else. Erdrich is capable of such beautiful, thoughtful writing that I was disappointed by this book.

Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice

35914753These days, most of us live lives almost completely divorced from the hard, unpredictable work of keeping ourselves warm and fed. Most of us get our food from grocery stores and restaurants. We flip a switch to turn on the lights or fiddle with a knob to turn on the heat or the cool to adjust the temperature of our living spaces. But on the Canadian reservation where Evan Whitesky lives, in Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, he and his relatives and band members live closer to the land. And when the power inexplicably goes out—seemingly forever—life on the Anishinaabe reserve is about to get even closer to the bone.

When we meet him, Evan has just shot a moose for his family. His worry about keeping everyone fed for the winter is assuaged, at least for the moment. Getting the body back home is a bit of a struggle, but he manages. The Whitesky family has food. They’ve good firewood. They’re in good shape. He’s still a little anxious about his brother, but he’s mostly content. Within 24 hours, however, the power from the nearby dam goes out. Evan gets a little more worried. Still, they have a generator for emergencies and food and diesel trucks are schedule to arrive in about a week.

At first there’s no need to panic or even ration—until two young members of the band arrive on snowmobiles after fleeing the town where they were going to college. The power went out there, too, and no one can get in touch with the government in Toronto. Things go quickly to hell and the two men barely manage to escape. After they turn up on the reserve, an unsettling white man turns up and asks for a place among the Anishinaabe. Justin Scott says he’ll be an asset to the band, but he doesn’t feel right to Evan. Before long, Scott becomes as much of a problem for Evan and the rest of the band as hunger and cold do.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is a brief tale of survival against a terrifying opportunist and against the elements that touches on cultural reclamation, self-determination, language, and faith. These touches elevate the book from simple dystopia to an opportunity for the Anishinaabe at this reserve to, perhaps, return to their ancestral way of life. Do we cheer? Do we lament the terrible price that was paid? The open ending of Moon of the Crusted Snow has no answers for us. Instead, it leaves us with some very interesting questions to think about long after we finish the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

2227528The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, didn’t quite make sense to me until I read the brief note at the end. This note pointed out that several of the “sections” of The Plague of Doves had been previously published as short stories. When I looked back on what I read as a series of linked stories, I had to marvel at the way a story and a theme of disillusionment coalesced out of the various characters’ narratives. Motifs suddenly became clues about the central mysteries of the collection. The achronological organization began to feel like I was interviewing potential witnesses and suspects of the crimes committed on a North Dakotan Ojibwa-Metis-Michif reservation over generations. By the end, I felt that I knew more about these characters than, perhaps, they meant to reveal, as though I really was an investigator or oral historian.

The Plague of Doves covers more than 100 years of history, but it opens near the end of that span. Evelina shares her grandfathers retelling of the day he was almost hanged by a posse of white men. The posse suspected Mooshum and three other Native Americans he was with of killing a white family (excluding one infant survivor). Despite token resistance by white law enforcement, Mooshum’s friends are lynched. The lynching and the murders that precipitated it form a core for several of the narrators to hang their own stories on. With each new narrator, whether directly connected to those killings or not, we learn more about the lynching, the murders, and a lot of things that happened since.

Because some of the sections are only tangentially related to the killings, I looked for something to connect all the sections. Partway through The Plague of Doves, I think I spotted it: disillusionment. Over and over in this novel, I watched characters (who are on the pragmatic side, for the most part) realize that love, law, faith, and other abstract concepts might let them down. That said, this is not a hopeless book. Rather, I read this book as a series of awakenings as characters realized that what they thought was important was either more complicated or just figments of their imaginations. The characters sometimes break, but I sense that they become stronger for their mental ordeals.

The Plague of Doves is a complex piece of fiction that offers several meals’ worth food for through. Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like my brain has been performing marathons as I’ve tried to work out what this book is all about. This brief review doesn’t even come close to covering it all.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is one of the few perfect books I’ve ever read. I have nothing to complain about. I would change nothing about this heartbreaking, but satisfying book. Instead, I have only praise—so you’ll all need to bear with me while I gush about how stunning this book is. The Round House has so many of the things I love: explorations of justice and ethics, revenge, broken histories, and subtly beautiful writing.

We tend of think of the law as a stable thing. Laws against murder, assault, theft, and so on are always illegal. The truth is much messier than that, especially on Native American reservations. American law (like everyone else’s, I expect) is cobbled together, full of oversights, mistakes, and loopholes. When people get caught in one of these gaps, the results can be devastating. Such is the certainly the case in The Round House. The novel begins with our protagonist, Joe, and his father arriving home to discover that Joe’s mother, Geraldine, has be been brutally attacked and raped. In the first third of the book, Joe and his father, Judge Coutts, pursue the case because it’s not clear who’s jurisdiction Geraldine’s case belongs to. Once they do discover who did it, things get worse because Geraldine doesn’t know if the attack happened on tribal, state, or federal land. Because no one knows where the crime happened, no one can try the criminal.

Joe, at thirteen, burns with outrage for most of the book. He sees his mother suffer terribly in the aftermath of her rape. Then he sees his father rendered helpless by the laws that he is sworn to uphold. Joe doesn’t understand, deep down, why no one is ensuring that Geraldine gets justice. The novel makes it clear that White justice won’t work. That said, the narrative contains many hints that there are other paths to justice.

Early in The Round House, Joe and his father are reading over case files to try and find Geraldine’s rapist. While they do that, Joe thinks of the 1883 case, Ex parte Crow Dog, a curious Supreme Court ruling that established that people who had been tried by a Native American tribe could not be re-tried in another court. There are also stories, told by Joe’s grandfather, about how the Ojibwe would deal with wendigo, people who had gone so far to the bad that they needed to be killed for the safety of others. The book is so subtle about the theme of sanctioned vigilantism that it snuck up on me. When I finally understood what The Round House was trying to say, I had to marvel at the skill that went into this book.

While this theme is emerging, we see Joe and his life on a South Dakotan reservation is such rich detail that I could feel the heat and dust of summer. I’ve only been to South Dakota once, but my memories of the state and of the reservation just north of my hometown came roaring back as I read. But the reservation in The Round House is not the desolate, poverty-stricken place that we normally see in fiction and on the news. It helps that Joe has a lyrical mind:

Now the crane my mother used to watch, or its offspring, flapped slowly past my window. That evening, it cast the image, not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from their slender body. Then the feathers took fire so that creature was consumed by light. (157*)

Joe’s reservation feels like home, as if there’s no other place that he could live and be comfortable. Joe’s exploits with his friends and his grandfather provide much needed doses of levity in an otherwise very somber book.

The Round House is one of the best written books I’ve read in a long time. The writing is so simple and gorgeous that I’m still glowing But what really made this book for me was the way that it dealt with the idea of thwarted legal justice and justified retribution. I wish I had read this with my book group because I want to get into a long discussion with someone about the outcome of Joe’s quest.

turtle-mountain

Undated photo of Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota


* Quote is from the kindle edition by Harper.

Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko

Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko, is hugely confusing but full of wisdom for readers who can slow down long enough to absorb it—which means that I probably missed a lot of what this book had to tell me. I have a feeling, though, that one reading, even for slower readers, is not enough for this tale of a Laguna veteran of World War II who needs to reconnect with his place in the world. The narrative is weighted with meaning, peppered with stories in verse from Laguna lore. No wonder critics and readers love this book; Ceremony is the kind of book Calvino would call a classic because I don’t think it will ever finish saying what it has to say.

The plot of Ceremony is impossible to describe in anything other than the broadest of strokes. Once Tayo accedes to his family’s request to seek help from the medicine men, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. Everything that happens is real enough to Tayo. At the beginning of the novel, Tayo is struggling. He flashes back frequently to the death of his cousin during a death march and his waking nightmare that he killed his uncle because the Japanese soldiers holding him captive ordered him to (this last didn’t actually happen). Tayo drinks a lot, trying to get some relief from his persistent nausea, weeping, and insomnia. Once Tayo goes to the medicine men, he finds himself on a quest to take back as much as he can—lost family-owned cattle, territory, control over himself, his reputation—or accept the loss of what can’t be taken back.

If I had to map out the structure of Ceremony, I would have to draw the novel has a spiral.The novel grows more confusing as Tayo quests, but by the denouement, I could see stunning parallels between where he started and where he finishes. We end up, physically, back were Tayo started—at his uncle’s ranch—almost a year after the novel opens. Spiritually and psychologically, we’ve traveled miles with Tayo. His journey is a stark contrast to the lives of nearly everyone he meets. So many of the secondary and tertiary characters are stuck in patterns of poverty, alcoholism, and abuse. One character is a Catholic who is so concerned about what people think of her that she can’t be happy in her faith.

The ceremony of the title is something new, based on Laguna practices and lore, particularly the ceremony the Laguna used to hold for warriors returning from battle. Several times during the narrative, medicine men and people Tayo meets point out that change is life and stagnation death. Because Tayo is returning from a war unlike anything the Laguna have ever taken part in and because their way of life has been so disrupted by white people, it’s fitting that the medicine men and Tayo have to create something new for him. Nothing else would feel right.

People who know me and my personal lack of belief might be surprised to find that I liked this book. The narrative does not feel like it’s been dressed up in Laguna practices. Instead, Ceremony lives the lore. I can’t describe it any other way. Because Tayo is building something meaningful and because we get to watch him do it, this book feels incredibly wise and rich. Yes, parts are confusing. Tayo is a confused character. But there are a lot of ideas to wonder over once you’ve closed the cover on the last page.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who have gone through traumatic events that have separated them from their places and people.