The Night Watchman
Going way back to her 1984 debut novel, Love Medicine, I’ve been an admirer of Louise Erdrich’s work. She keeps getting better and better – her latest, The Night Watchman, being a case in point.
It is loosely based on the life of her own grandfather, who was chairman of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians at a time (the mid-1950’s) when the United States government was attempting to reclaim land owned by, lived on, and guaranteed by treaty to Native Americans.
In a nutshell: Thomas Wazhashk is tribal chair of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa by day and, by night, a watchman at a jewel-bearing plant in rural North Dakota. His work is endless, particularly when a resolution is proposed in Congress that, if passed, would result in the destruction of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa as a cohesive people.
Though Thomas leads the charge to fight it, many others of the band play instrumental roles in his carefully conceived, intelligently thorough, and quietly forceful campaign.
The over-arching theme of the book is the plight of the Native American in a country that would see its various tribes assimilated into oblivion. Sub-themes, though, are universal – the age-old human search for acceptance, our need for friendship and family, and the role of tribal (small ‘t’) folklore as a source of strength.
Erdrich is a master of prose that is descriptive, true to its speakers, and succinct. There is no self-consciousness here. She seamlessly blends Chippewa words and phrases into the dialogue. Likewise, she presents Native American customs in an understated, perfectly natural way.
Erdrich is herself an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain band, and she knows of what she speaks – of her tribe, of other Native American tribes, and of the often unforgiving land on which they live.
Each character is unique and likable in his or her own way. Erdrich juggles her cast as beautifully as she does the various plot threads.
These threads come together in a powerful David-versus-Goliath event.
My lone con is more of a heads-up. One does not skim The Night Watchman. It is a dense book, and it isn’t short. Reading carefully is a must.
There is a quiet command to The Night Watchman, one character to the next, one scene to the next, one setting to the next. There is also a quiet resignation that seeped into me as I read, instilling an understanding of, and compassion for, the Native American plight that has been with me ever since.