Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa when the US Congress imposed House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953. This revoked the federally recognised status of many Native American tribes and withdrew legal protection of their territory, culture and religion. Gourneau was also a night watchman. While Erdrich’s latest book is fiction, it clearly draws deeply on what she describes in a prefatory note as ‘my grandfather’s extraordinary life’.
Thomas Wazhashk — the surname means muskrat in Chippewa — is the night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, a place where the women of the tribe ‘spent their days leaning into the hard light of their task lamps’. He lives in a state of perpetual exhaustion, trying to balance his menial job with the demands of his position as the head of a tribe under threat from a bill whose ‘innocuous dry language’ masked its malign intent: ‘To unmake, to unrecognise. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.’
One of the women working at the plant is spiky 19-year-old Patrice Paranteau, known, to her chagrin, as Pixie. The daughter of a cringing drunk (‘no way to pretend away the relentless shame of him’), she knows that she is ‘the only barrier between her family and disaster’, being the first person in the family to have ‘a white-people job’. Her sister Vera has recently joined the exodus away from the reservation, having left for Minneapolis with her soon-to-be-husband. The ‘Placement and Relocation Office’ that engineers these departures is part of the apparently benign machine by which the US government seeks to ‘absorb’ the tribes.
Now Vera has disappeared, and Patrice takes a week’s leave to go in search of her sister, who has, it seems, had a baby in the Twin Cities. On the train, she runs into Wood Mountain, an up-and-coming boxer from the reservation who shares her pemmican (dried deer meat)before issuing a warning about the two-faced city and its temptations.
Sure enough, Patrice has barely stepped off the train when she is caught up with a disreputable gang, led by the snaggle-toothed Jack. Her search for her sister and her struggle to maintain her identity and integrity become a metaphor for the pressures, overt and covert, that seek to overwhelm the Indians’ wish to ‘hold themselves apart’.
This is Erdrich’s 17th novel and shares many of the themes of the previous one, the brilliantly dystopian Future Home of the Living God, as well as with LaRose, which spools out from an individual tragedy to a broad consideration of American culture. But perhaps because of its intensely personal origins, this book feels particularly special, taking those elements that we expect from Erdrich — beautiful prose, exquisite depiction of the natural world, powerful emotion — and building them into something exceptional. If you haven’t read her before, The Night Watchman is a superb introduction to the work of one of America’s most important living novelists.