The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich


While I was listening to this book, the announcement came that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. What a good choice they made!

The book centers on two stories that intersect. Thomas, a night watchman who succeeds in derailing an effort by a Senator in the early 1950s to abrogate the treaties with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, was based on her grandfather, Patrick Gorneau. The effort called “liberation” was to withdraw all support promised by the treaties that took Indian land. It was to begin with five tribes and eventually apply to all tribes. The other main character, Patrice is, the author says, completely fictional. I came to love both of them.

Thomas wrote to Congressmen, set up meetings between leaders of the American Legion and Native American spokesmen to elicit their support to honor Indians who had served in the war, spoke to school superintendents and others whose institutions  would be affected by the withdrawal of federal support for the tribes. His work culminated in a visit to Washington for hearings on the bill proposed by Senator Arthur Watkins.

Patrice, now too grown up to be called Trixie, worked in the local jewel bearing plant to support her mother and siblings. Their father made only unwelcome occasional appearances and had become a violent alcoholic. Vera, the oldest daughter, left for “the cities” (Minneapolis-St.Paul), and had disappeared. Patrice set out to find her and had by good fortune and great cunning, escaped a terrible fate and while she didn’t find Vera, she was able to bring home her baby son. In the course of her adventures, she made money appearing in a swim tank in a nightclub dressed as Babe, the blue ox. Such an unlikely image but this does take place in Paul Bunyan territory.

Along with the two main stories, I want to remember these bits:

After a chapter about the homecoming parade being interrupted because one of the horses was in heat, comes a chapter from the horses’ point of view, that begins this way, “After the sex was over, they were bored and irritated and also there was nothing to eat. They didn’t exactly break up but they did manage to ignore each other as they plodded around looking for some juicy grass.”

Thomas learned as much as he could about Watkins and read as much of the Book of Mormon as he could manage. He understood why this man was dismissive of treaty law. “In Watkins’ religion the Mormon people had been divinely gifted all of the land they wanted. Indians weren’t white and delightsome but cursed with dark skin, so they had no right to live on the land. That they had signed legal treaties with the highest governmental bodies in the United States was also nothing to Watkins. Legality was second to personal revelation.”

When Thomas dismissed the Joseph Smith revelations about “peep stones”and a vision in the bottom of a hat as cockeyed, his wife Rosa laughed and said all those stories are crazy if you think about it. Thomas mused that the Bible was full of power and poetry and tall tales and that ultimately he preferred the Nanabuju stories. He “fooled ducks, got angry at his own butt and burnt it off, and created a shit mountain to climb down when stuck high in a tree, had a wolf for his nephew.”

One last interesting juxtaposition I want to remember:  the day before they were to testify before Congress, some of the delegation, including the fictional Patrice, observed Congress from the Visitors’ Gallery. That was the day that four Puerto Rican nationalists shot from that gallery with semi-automatic guns, injuring five Congressmen, one of them seriously. I don’t know if that event in 1954 was in fact a day before Turtle Mountain Chippewas testified or not.

What a great book.

Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman, Harper, 2020, 451 pages (I listened to the audiobook, read by the author). Available at the public library.

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