Monday, April 19, 2021

Emancipation as Termination

The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman 

“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.”   ― Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman

Five years ago I was introduced to the writing of Louise Erdrich by reading The Master Butchers Singing Club. This historical novel of Germans in America won me over and while it has been too long since, I now have returned to Louise Erdrich with her historical novel about the battle of her indigenous people for their rights.

In this story we find Thomas Wazhashk, the the night watchman of the title, working at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new "emancipation" bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn't about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a "termination" that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. He wonders, how can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans "for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run"? While anyone who has read about the history of the relations between the indigenous tribes and the steady encroachment of American settlers will not be surprised by these events, it is disturbing that they are happening in post WWII America.

Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice's shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn't been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.

Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice's best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.

In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Her very real characters speak simple, but truthful words, all the while fighting a Federal Government whose words are duplicitous. 

Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a moving work of both personal and historical fiction whose story has both sadness and a positive spirit that finds its source in family and community.


reese said...

I've been curious about this one. Thanks! She's quite good, isn't she?

Of the ones I've read by her, my favorite has been The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse.

mudpuddle said...

when i worked in the oil field i got to know a Chippewa indian pretty well... in spite of alcoholic tendencies and a lasting resentment against Caucasians, he had a sense of humor and was a pretty ordinary human... reading your lucid review, those memories returned, in part...

James said...

Erdrich has a way of portraying a culture through individual characters. In this case it is a sad story of betrayal leavened by the community.

The humanity of the Chippewa people is brought forth in the characterizations. From Thomas to the other members of the community there is a clear delineation.