The bones of this novel — a novel full of bones and ghosts — are actual events featuring real people, first among them Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, who, like Thomas Wazhashk, one of the book’s main characters, was a night watchman at a jewel bearing factory near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Also like Erdrich’s grandfather, Thomas is a tribal leader contending with a resolution before Congress; in 1953, HCR 108 targeted the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, among others, for “emancipation” — from their treaties, from their land, “from being Indians,” as Thomas rightly reads it, i.e., “termination.”
That a family history forms the novel’s skeleton is fitting, because it is a sense of family that holds the whole story together — that is the story, really, connecting a missing sister, a baby found, a young man love-struck by the foundling, a drunken father and forgiving cousin, an uncle who flies disembodied through the world seeking news of relatives, a mother powerful with spiritual wisdom, a daughter whose native intelligence connects the past and future. That daughter, sister of the missing girl, aunt of the recovered baby, is Pixie, who prefers to be called Patrice, the sinewy center of the book.
Interwoven with the story of Thomas taking the fight against termination all the way to the nation’s capital is the story of Patrice looking for her sister, Vera, who might be the victim of a terrible crime. And knitting these two threads together is all the drama of daily life at Turtle Mountain, from building a cradleboard to preparing a grave. Patrice’s search takes her to Minneapolis and involves her in such bizarre adventures as performing in a water tank in a bar in a blue rubber ox costume. Thomas’ quest entails raising money through a boxing match as wonderfully rendered as Invisible Man’s “Battle Royale” (if much more amusingly), with the coach, an earnest white schoolteacher, and the champ, a charming Chippewa horse wrangler, contending for Patrice’s attention as well.
What is most beautiful about the book is how this family feeling manifests itself in the way the people of “The Night Watchman” see the world, their fierce attachment to each other, however close or distant, living or dead. Wildlife and the weather figure in the picture as well, as a psychic dog might understand the damaged Vera, or a hibernating bear might offer encouragement, or Patrice might “hear the humming rush of [a] tree drinking from the earth,” or a solid old auntie might recognize the dancing spirits in the northern lights, or the ghost of a boy brutalized in boarding school might confer with the ghosts ambient around the Indian bones interred in the bowels of the Smithsonian.
This speaks to another dark strand running though the book, and through the American story — one that, for all its chauvinism, Erdrich frames with remarkable care. “I don’t understand why it’s so bad,” the white teacher says about the prospect of termination. “It sounds like you get to be regular Americans.” After all, he’s German, Norwegian, Irish, English, he says, but “overall, I’m American.”
To which Thomas says with eloquent simplicity, “We’re from here.”
And in a world where Thomas might be visited by the ghosts of his boyhood friend or his brother, killed in the war; might commune with a snowy owl or command the bones of bison littering the prairie to “rise up!” — in a world “tender with significance,” they endure.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing. She lives in Wisconsin.
The Night Watchman
By: Louise Erdrich.
Publisher: Harper, 451 pages, $28.99.
Event: Book launch, 4 p.m. March 1, Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.