The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

“…you never really knew a man until you told him you didn’t love him.”

I sometimes think I’ve ruined myself by reading so much genre fiction, meaning that I become restless if there isn’t much of a plot, so that I can’t really do ‘literary fiction’ anymore.

But this is the Summer of Reading, and there this was on my Kindle (bought on behalf of student daughter who is a massive Erdrich fan and who made a pilgrimage to the author’s book shop when she was touring the States), so I started it.

And I was a bit restless for the first few dozen pages. This summer I’ve been reading science fiction, thrillers, ghost stories, espionage… and my restless brain wanted some narrative hook to fix upon. But of course I settled down soon enough, and I’m glad I did.

The Night Watchman is set in 1953, when the US Congress was deep into its latest round of reneging on treaty promises with First Nations people. House Concurrent Resolution 108, introduced by a racist senator, was designed to terminate the tribal status of American Indian Nations, abolish their reservations, and leave them impoverished and at the mercy of that most brutal form of economy, American capitalism. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa were among the first five tribes targeted for termination.

And like generations of tribes before them, they needed to campaign against the HCR-108 by sending a delegation to Washington, like the many delegations before them, to request that the US government abide by their treaty obligations, which had already confined the tribes to smaller and smaller territories of poor farm land. But there were still forests and there were minerals, and the white people wanted the wood and the minerals and the tribes were in the way.

All of which sounds grim and infuriating, and to read about this betrayal in the week of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid scenes of panic at the Kabul airport is to see something eternal about the United States and its attitude to promises made to people of colour.

But this book is not grim in its tone, although there are some grim events herein. Louise Erdrich has no interest in portraying her people as helpless victims who are at the mercy of greedy white people. The Turtle Mountain people are not naive; they may be tired and cynical about white people’s bullshit, but they are prepared to fight — and win. The Night Watchman is a story about a group of people who struggle economically, yes, but also live their lives and maintain their beliefs and their traditional ways as far as they are able. Dogs talk. Bears allow themselves to be hunted. Restless ghosts walk. People survive and endure against the odds.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the titular night watchman, Thomas, who goes without sleep in order to both do his job and lead the campaign against HCR-108 (not to mention being a great uncle and husband). Meanwhile, his niece Patrice is working at the same government-owned factory and negotiating her relationships with the various men in her life, including her drunk and violent father, the white teacher who fancies her, and Wood Mountain, the young boxer who tries to help her find her missing sister.

Patrice is such a brilliant character. She’s curious about sex, knows all about it in Chippewa but needs to know about it in English. She’s good at her factory job, sets traps, chops wood, and sets off on her own adventure to Minneapolis to find the missing Vera and her baby. She’s also funny, cutting, and knows how to look after herself.

The purpose of literature is to allow us to empathise with others, to learn about the lives we do not live, and The Night Watchman immerses you in tribal life and tribal logic, allowing you to experience a point of view you might not have had before. As I said, this is not a plot-driven novel. The short chapters give you short snapshots of events and thought processes: it’s really more of a Menippean Satire than a novel. And sometimes you read a phrase that brings you up short. Like the quote at the top of this entry. Such a universal truth about men, something that all girls should probably know.

And Patrice thought another thing her mother said was definitely true—you never really knew a man until you told him you didn’t love him. That’s when his true ugliness, submerged to charm you, might surface.

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