I really enjoy fiction that is based in fact and this new novel by Louise Erdrich is based on the extraordinary life of her grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against federal government’s attempt to terminate Native American rights from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington DC in the 1950s. Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was part of the first generation of indigenous people born on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in the mid-1950s and Erdrich had a cache of letters written by her grandfather to draw on for the inspiration for the novel’s main character, Thomas Wazhushk, the nightwatchman of the title. Thomas gets his last name from the muskrat, “the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent” and Thomas is a hard worker himself. Erdrich has made a career of writing about Indians’ lives, histories and stories which have been deliberately obliterated by past US governments and brings indigenous literature into the national stage. But she always brings the political, the racism, the denial of indigenous rights back to the people it affects and she does this in The Nightwatchman. We stay focused on the families living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation and the immediate concerns of the struggle to make a living, finding someone to love and holding a family together rather than the political attack from white congressmen 1,500 miles (over 2000 kilometres for us) away. Thomas works the night shift at the local factory and between his rounds he writes letters to local and national politicians, business leaders and scholars – anyone who might help him mount an effective defence against Congress’s plans to terminate his tribe.
“We have survived smallpox, the Winchester repeating rifle, the Hotchkiss gun, and tuberculosis,” Thomas thinks. “We have survived the flu epidemic of 1918, and fought in four or five deadly United States wars. But at last we will be destroyed by a collection of tedious words.”
Thomas is determined that his tribe will survive and we have a political undercurrent that holds the novel together. But the beauty of this novel is that we move out into the community and we get to see into other community members’ lives and all that could be lost if the tribe is terminated. We have Patrice Paranteau, a 19 year old, a smart strong young woman who is the main breadwinner for her mother and little brother and the main protector when her violent, alcoholic father crashes back home. Patrice works at the local factory and we get to know the long hours, the lack of safety and the very poor pay that only just keeps the family alive. Then there is Lloyd Barnes, a white man teaching math at the reservation school, an outsider who also runs the gym at the community centre and also coaches boxing for the young men in the community. His best former boxer is Wood Mountain who could be one of the greats according to all the community but who has to stay away from alcohol. Both of these men are in love with Patrice, who treats both of them with comedic disdain. Her main worry is her sister, Vera, who headed off to Minneapolis months ago and no-one has heard from her. Patrice is determined to set out for the city to find her, especially after her uncle has a dream vision that she is in trouble.
Erdrich manages to provide funny moments in deep tragedy and we meander through all these lives to build a whole story of a tribe that wants to survive despite the poverty, challenges and the tragedies. Totally a recommended read.
Jane Cowell, CEO Yarra Plenty Regional Library