February 2023 Open Book Group – The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Thank you to Maggie for moderating The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Louise Erdrich is a member of the Chippewa tribe of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In the afterword to The Night Watchman, she explains that short of inspiration for a new book, she re-read her grandfather’s letters written in 1953. At the time, Arthur B. Watkins proposed House Concurrent Resolution 108 was before Congress. It threatened to terminate the tribe’s rights to the reservation land and enforce involuntary settlement in cities. The bill argued it was “emancipating” the tribe and granting it “freedom”. from federal supervision. With no legislative nor financial support, her grandfather as chairman of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa advisory committee mounted a successful resistance to the Bill. Inspired by his actions her grandfather became the model for The Night Watchman’s protagonist, Thomas Wazhushk.

Alongside Thomas’ fight, Erdrich Introduces us to a diverse range of fictional characters who live on the reservation. There is Patrice who works in the factory where jewel bearings are made for ammunition and watches. Her immediate concern is for her sister, Vera, who has disappeared into the city. There is a rumour she has had a child. There are the boxers Wood Mountain and Joe Wobble. Their staged fight will help pay for Thomas’ trip to Washington. A white teacher and boxing coach, Lloyd Barnes, wonders if he will become an Indian if Patrice would consent to be his wife. Mormon missionaries try to convert the community to Christianity but are no match for the deep-seated animistic spirituality of its members.

Despite the inclement weather, 15 OBGers gathered for our first meeting of 2023. We noted sadly how each of our native countries had treated their First Nations people after colonisation. One member commented that Canadian Innuits were forced into residential schools to teach them white culture. It was assumed they would assimilate into the wider community upon leaving the schools. In Australia, the stolen generation suffered a similar fate. We referenced The Secret River by Kate Grenville and Philip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Ironically, one member noted that the colonising English did make treaties with the native Indians. While these treaties were rarely complied with their existence may have given Thomas and the Turtle Mountain community more confidence in their argument. We commented on how the push for a treaty with Australia’s First Nation people is topical at the moment with Lydia Thorpe’s recent departure from The Greens party over the issue.

There was no question the writing was of the highest quality. We noted that when arguing for his Bill Walters used words, such as “freedom”, “grant”, “rights” and “citizenship” to give the impression he was doing the Indian community a favour. In reality, the Bill sought to “free” indigenous people from their identities as indigenous people. We observed that the language of the Indian community was simple and without artifice. Thomas renames it The Termination Bill to describe its true intent. We discussed Thomas’ fear that his tribe’s native language would be lost if the Bill was passed. We acknowledged the wider commitment in recent years to preserving Australia’s First Nations languages. We noted Stan Grant now uses language to introduce ABC’s Q&A.

There was an appreciation of the world Erdrich has created with the myriad of characters on the reservation. We felt engaged with them all. Favourites were Patrice and the boxer Wood Mountain. Erdrich knows the community she was writing about and gave us a great understanding of how they lived. The attraction of a simple life was seductive. However, one member warned us against romanticising the realities of extreme poverty. Living without fresh, running water and electricity was not to be envied.

Patrice’s kidnap and forced employment, at the strip club in Minneapolis, when she left the reservation to look for Vera was eye-opening. Vera had fallen into drug addiction and given birth to a child. Such as the power of Erdrich’s characterisations, we felt dread at what may have happened to Vera. One member opined that through Patrice and Vera’s experience in the big city, Erdrich was demonstrating what could happen to the community if they were forced off the reservation and into the city.

Several members embraced the community’s spirituality. It was founded on folklore traditions of the power of animal spirits. One member recounted that the appearance of the white owl signified change, transformation, and good fortune. Another noted that Thomas Wazhashk’s surname meant muskrat. This seemingly insignificant rodent tunnelled out dirt from the great floodplain, allowing the creator to make the whole earth. Ghosts, of dead relatives, haunted Thomas as he protected the factory at night.

The novel could be described as a fictionalised memoir. Several felt the book was split in two. In giving respect to her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, Erdrich was meticulous in ensuring the facts of Thomas’ trip to Washington to challenge Watkins’ Bill were historically correct. This factual account sat alongside her community of fictional characters. Some felt these two did not knit together as successfully as they might have done. They also felt there were too many characters, and the novel was overly long. Regardless the characters stayed with us long after we had finished reading.

Erdrich leads us through her community with great compassion for its members. We were rewarded with many valuable insights into Reservation life.

Maggie sent this interesting article about learning the language of the Cree tribe.




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