ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two noble themes — justice and love —embrace in “The Night Watchman,” Louise Erdrich’s uplifting new novel about the resilience of underdogs.
The dominant theme refers to a hard-fought battle for justice in the 1950s, a period known as the Indian wars. Thomas Wazhashk, a night watchman, mobilizes his hardscrabble Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to take the fight for their North Dakota reservation to Washington, D.C. They’re going to argue against congressional plans to abrogate the band’s federal treaty with the United States. A House resolution has targeted the band, Thomas thinks, “for emancipation. E-man-ci-pa-tion. This word would not stop banging around in his head.
Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties Thomas’ father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever.”
In an email, Erdrich said much of her maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, who himself was a night watchman, found its way into the character of Thomas and into the tone of the book.
“He was genial, hardworking, cerebral, funny,” the author said. “He was, above all, kind. I wanted to write from his acceptance of other people, his fight against injustice and his desperation to protect his tribe.”
In the novel, as in real life, the Turtle Mountain Band organized grass-roots support to defeat the resolution. However, in the 1950s and ’60s, Erdrich said, the federal government continued efforts to remove members of various tribes from their reservations, instead of building infrastructure on reservation lands.
The book’s related, theme, love, filters through in the endearments by multiple characters. Thomas demonstrates a love of family and tribe, as does his niece, 19-year-old Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau,. Patrice, like Thomas, is a Chippewa with a job at the nearby jewel-bearing factory.
Patrice has an abiding love for her older sister, Vera, who has moved to Minneapolis. A worried Patrice tries to track her down. Patrice temporarily ends up in a bizarre water tank nightclub act, fails to find Vera but learns her sister may have a child. The baby is later carried back to North Dakota, finding unquestioning love from a young Chippewa amateur boxer who is one of Patrice’s two suitors. The other suitor is an Anglo high school math teacher/boxing coach.
The reader is privy to Patrice’s thoughts about romance and sex, but for the moment she is committed to supporting her mother and younger brother. They live together in a small house with no electricity, no running water and an absent alcoholic father. Patrice remembers that when she was little people made fun of her tattered looks, “coming to school in shoes cut so her toes could poke out, coatless until the teacher scrounged one up, underwear sewed from a flour sack.”
Respect for the animal kingdom comes into play. There’s an unhinged mating scene between a stallion and a mare on the edge of a high school homecoming parade.
Erdrich possesses a tender, perceptive feel in describing spirits, dreams and nature. Many of these descriptions beg to be read aloud as if they were poetry readings: Here is one: “Outside the snow blew upward in plumes and swirls. It struck the windows in small pellets. It lay heavy in the trees, like the pelts of sinuous white animals.”
Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band, is the author of many novels, of three poetry collections, seven books for children and a memoir. Her literary prizes include the 1984 Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for “Love Medicine” and the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction for “The Round House.” Her novel “The Plague of Doves” was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist.