Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction Friday for her novel "The Night Watchman," a glowing and multilayered novel based on the life of her grandfather, Aunishenaubay Patrick Gourneau.
"I can't believe it," Erdrich said on Friday. "But you know, I'm so happy about this because I felt so close to what my grandfather was going through in this book. I hope he knows that he won the Pulitzer. I really do."
Erdrich, 67, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She has won numerous awards over her long career, including the National Book Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and, twice, the National Book Critics Circle fiction award. She was a Pulitzer finalist in 2009 for "The Plague of Doves."
"I didn't think I'd ever win this. You know?" Erdrich said. Despite all of her other honors, "It's huge. It's recognition for something outside of myself, for a Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribal member. It has a resonance that I think is making my mom really happy right now."
"The Night Watchman" tells the little-known story of the U.S. government's efforts in the 1950s to "emancipate" the Turtle Mountain band and other tribes from their Indianness.
The government planned to terminate their protected status, which was guaranteed in treaties, end their government health care and education, abolish tribes, relocate them from reservations to cities and stop any kind of aid or payments for taking their land.
Two dozen of the 113 tribes this happened to became extinct, Erdrich said in a 2020 interview with the Star Tribune.
When she was working on the book, Erdrich said on Friday, she worried that nobody would read it. "I was talking to a friend — I guess I called her up in despair — and said, 'Who's ever going to read a book about a dreadful bill that was passed by Congress in 1954?' I was thinking, this'll never fly.
"Honestly, this book — it's all about persistence and survival. And so it's for the Turtle Mountain people and for the people up on Line 3 who are fighting every day for a future that we can live in. My grandfather would probably be up there on Line 3," protesting the Enbridge Energy oil pipeline.
The Pulitzer committee's citation called her book "a majestic, polyphonic novel about a community's efforts to halt the proposed displacement and elimination of several Native American tribes in the 1950s, rendered with dexterity and imagination."
Erdrich was delighted that another Indigenous woman also won a Pulitzer — Natalie Diaz, whose "Postcolonial Love Poem," published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press, won the prize for poetry.
"I'm thrilled about this!" Erdrich said. "And now we have another Pulitzer winner in our city — Darnella Frazier," honored by the Pulitzer committee for capturing on video of the death of George Floyd.
Diaz's book was the third Pulitzer for Graywolf; Tracy K. Smith won in 2012 and Vijay Seshadri in 2014. Her collection, said Graywolf Executive Editor Jeff Shotts, is "a call toward goodness, even as it recognizes the violence of our time and as it is dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women."
The Pulitzer citation read: "A collection of tender, heart-wrenching and defiant poems that explore what it means to love and be loved in an America beset by conflict."
Another Graywolf book, "Telephone," a novel by Percival Everett, was a Pulitzer finalist for fiction. And Minnesota-bred jazz composer Maria Schneider was a finalist in music for her Grammy-winning double album "Data Lords."
Erdrich was working when the news arrived. "I was in a really hot attic, copy editing my next book. Copy editing is extremely difficult for me because my mind does not run to getting the details right and thank god my copy editor — who I've worked with forever, since the beginning of my books — said I could take a break. He texted me and said 'Congratulations,' and said I could take the afternoon off."
And the book Erdrich was copy editing in her attic?
"It's called 'The Sentence,' " she said. "And the reason it's so difficult is because I set a task for myself in November of 2019 and I decided to write about one year in the life of a haunted bookstore. And look at what happened. We all were haunted by that year.
"I feel the same way about it as I feel about every book. Why would anybody want to read this?"