The Night Watchman. Doesn’t sound much like an Erdrich title, does it? The Last Report On the Miracles At Little No Horse, Antelope Wife, The Painted Drum. It takes only a few pages, though, to demonstrate that we are squarely in Louise’s territory.
It’s the early 1950’s. The Turtle Mountain Chippewas are imperiled. A racist congressman has introduced a bill relieving government of all responsibility for the tribe so that they can live more responsible American lives. That his proposal abrogates the treaty that promised them their land (scant and poor as it is) “as long as the grass grows and the river flows” is of no consequence to this guy.
Put that way, this sounds like a social protest book, and that element is certainly part of the picture. However, Erdrich grounds the saga in Native American family life. Love, sex, survival, integrity. In some ways, this is a coming of age book for protagonist “Pixie” who keeps trying to change what people call her to “Patrice” as one way of growing up. People try, but it’s a struggle. It might sound like a trivial thing that is important only to one young woman, but her battle is emblematic of the struggle for identity of an entire people. They’re trying hard to survive and stay sane and stay themselves in the face of hostile campaigns from all sides. And of course this has been going on for generations.
And what of the night watchman? He takes his lunch pail to work every night to guard a warehouse. And to write the script for the tribe’s defense against the ugly legislation. And to commune with an owl who keeps visiting for purposes baffling and mysterious.
As always in an Erdrich tale, there’s generous comedy here. Of note to me is one scene where a stallion takes off after a mare in heat and disrupts a parade. I was reminded of a sequence in Little No Horse where a sled is hijacked by a runaway moose, and we follow his bouncing balls across a lake.
But comical as some of the novel is, it is also painful and touching. We love these characters and we love following their travails. And I love the ending. A true surprise of the most pleasing and profound sort.
Thanks again, Louise. You’ve enriched my life yet again.