Review: Louise Erdrich has chosen story near to her heart

“The Night Watchman,” Harper, by Louise Erdrich

At the start of Louise Erdrich’s stunning new novel, “The Night Watchman,” Thomas Wazhushk, Chippewa Council member and night watchman at a jewel bearing plant, studies a U.S. congressional bill that proposes to “emancipate” the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. By emancipate, he realizes, they mean terminate.

Armed with a pen, paper and the impeccable handwriting he gained when he was forced into a government boarding school for Native Americans as a child, Wazhushk (meaning muskrat) goes about fighting the bill the only way he can, by methodically writing letters and building a case to persuade the government to uphold its existing treaty with the Chippewa. It is an uphill battle.

The battle was real, based on House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill introduced to the U.S. Congress in 1953. “The Night Watchman” resurrects the struggle waged by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to keep the limited land allotted to them under treaties meant to last “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” And Thomas Washushk, the character who lovingly hops off the page, is based on Erdrich’s own grandfather, Patrick Gourneau.

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The Turtle Mountain delegation was the first to mount a fierce defense. And while it took a toll, they prevailed in the end. Not as much can be said for the 113 tribal nations that were terminated, losing 1.4 million acres of land.

In addition to Thomas’ pen-wielding struggle, Erdrich – the bestselling author and National Book Award winner – weaves the stories of other beautifully crafted characters against the backdrop of an impoverished reservation community on the Northern Plains of Minnesota – the only home they’ve ever known. These include Patrice, about whom, Erdrich writes: “There were times when Patrice felt like she was stretched across a frame, like a skin tent. She tried to forget that she could easily blow away. Or how easily her father could wreck them all.”

Schooled by her mother Zhaanat – the keeper of Chippewa knowledge – Patrice is a eager to learn but most comfortable in her native culture. She, like her mother, is tethered to the natural world. Indeed, the connection between Erdrich’s characters and the natural world is unbreakable, and some of her most evocative passages are dedicated to this relationship.

Take Thomas, for example, who “felt the roots of the trees humming below the earth. The trees were having a last bedtime drink of the great waters that flowed along down there. Like him, before they went to sleep.”

And Patrice, who “walked out to the fire holding a tin mug of her mother’s tea … made from aromatic cedar fronds and melted snow water. It was her favorite kind of tea. There was something about the water that was swirled through the heavens, frozen, scooped up, and boiled with cedar. You couldn’t name it. But the hot tea, made of ingredients that joined earth and heaven, radiated its penetrating force through her body. The tips of her fingers stung and her stomach warmed. She could feel her blood awaken.”

Erdrich has chosen a story that is near to her heart, and it shines through on every page.

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