Two years ago, Louise Erdrich succumbed to a nasty bug and took to her bed for a time. She slept, she daydreamed and she finally rose with a conviction that her next novel could be found in letters that her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, had written in a particularly tumultuous period of his life.
“The Night Watchman” is a fictional story constructed around the real-life 1950s history of the attempt by the U.S. government to “terminate” the rights of Native Americans to their lands, assets and their sovereignty.
Erdrich’s grandfather was the chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee, even as he held down a job as a night watchman at a local manufacturing plant. Unpersuaded that this was the “emancipation” for Indians that members of Congress claimed it was, he quickly saw the federal resolution for what it was: a move to strip Native people of their remaining independence.
In the novel, we sit with Thomas Wazhushk through his solitary hours as he guards the plant and strategizes about how to fend off the termination. We meet his daughter Patrice, or “Pixie,” as she embarks on a dangerous quest to find her sister. And we travel with the next generation — Wood Mountain, a young boxer, Patrice’s dear friend, Valentine, and the book-smart Millie, who is brought into the tight circle of the family.
More than 100 tribes lost land to the termination policy, although 78 would regain it. Erdrich confides in the novel’s afterword, “Much of this book was written in a state of heavy emotion, as I remembered the grief my grandmother and mother’s siblings suffered as the continued political fights took their toll and my grandfather’s health began to suffer.”
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