Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich: Poetic and Powerful

When an author as beloved as Louise Erdrich finally wins a Pulitzer, you read the book. You just do. But honestly, I put it off for a long time, and approached reading The Night Watchman like homework — something I felt like I should do, rather than something I really wanted to do. 

Erdrich quickly changed my mind. I was surprised how drawn I became to this book after only a few pages. Poetic and powerful, this is a fictional account of Erdrich's grandfather who fought to prevent the "termination" of North Dakota's Turtle Mountain Chippewas in 1952-53. A bill in Congress by a racist Mormon Senator sought to relocate them from their reservation and "reintegrate" or "assimilate" them into American society. "This new bill is about the worst thing for Indians to come down the pike," Erdrich's grandfather wrote in a letter, reproduced in the novel.

The novel is also the story of Patrice, a young woman who works at a factory on the reservation. Her story is about colliding with a changing world, looking for better opportunities, but still being comfortable with her heritage. Early in the story, Patrice has to travel to the Twin Cities to search for her sister Vera, who has disappeared. It's the first time Patrice has ever travelled, and been in a city, and it's eye-opening to her, but not necessarily in a good way.

For historical fiction, this is a surprisingly fluid, fast read. And I learned much. Very glad I read it.

Impressive side note: Erdrich is one of a handful of writers (I think just Philip Roth and John Updike are the other two, but I can't find a good source to confirm this) to win the hat-trick of major literary awards: Pulitzer (for this novel), the National Book Critics Circle Award (for LaRose), and the National Book Award (for The Round House). If you've never read her, this might be a good introduction to her fiction.

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