THE NIGHT WATCHMAN. By Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins. 451 pages. $28.99.
In the deepest hour of the night, Patrice (Pixie) Paranteau, one of the central characters in Louise Erdrich’s new novel “The Night Watchman,” steps outside her door into silence. Lines from Emily Dickinson come to her mind: “The World is not conclusion.” Erdrich writes: “She was included in the pause of some vast complex idea and she wondered. Will I be included in the next thought?”
Patrice, like so many Erdrich characters, pivots between the old tribal ways and the new ways that are coming at her. Her Native credentials are sturdy. In one mystical night, she finds herself sleeping in a hole with a bear. She traps rabbits, speaks Chippewa to her mother (a language that her younger brother has lost), reveres the elders, and draws strength from her heritage.
She is also able to withstand the pitfalls of the city. When her sister Vera enrolls in a government relocation program to the Twin Cities and then disappears, Pixie mounts a rescue mission. She has no idea where to search, but heeds her friend Wood Mountain’s advice to seek out “the scum.” Patrice falls into and out of the scum and escapes with Vera’s baby, but no Vera. For much of the novel, Patrice’s little nuclear family remains in tatters, with a father (the proverbial “drunken Indian”) gone, and a sister lost to the cities.
Her counterpart in the novel — and the night watchman of the title — is Thomas Wazhushk, the tribal chairman. Thomas gets his last name from the muskrat, “the lovely, hardworking, water-loving rodent.” In Chippewa mythology, it was a muskrat who managed to remake the earth after the great flood. Thomas earns his salvational name over and over again. He is of the “after-buffalo-who-are-we-now generation.” But when the time comes to declare himself in words and actions, Thomas the Muscrat is the tribe’s most soulful citizen.
Erdrich sends Patrice and Thomas on simultaneous quests. Patrice, who works at the jewel bearing plant where Thomas is the watchman, wants a stake in the future and a worthy mission. While others speak of her beauty, Wood Mountain pinpoints her secret: She’s “hell on wheels smart.” Her most pressing quest is to find Vera and to restore her to home and health.
Thomas Wazhushk seeks justice, the perennial Native demand made urgent by House Concurrent Resolution 108. According to his friend Moses Montrose, Thomas is an “altarboy” who has never encountered certain brands of evil. Soon, knowledge will come to him “like a foul seep.”
At the base of Erdrich’s vision is remembrance of an original sin: the conquest and eviction of aboriginal Americans from their homeland. House Concurrent Resolution 108 (1954) aimed to “emancipate” the Turtle Mountain Chippewas. Thomas understands that emancipation is really termination of hard-won treaties that set up a tribal homeland “for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.”
Erdrich explains in an afterword that Thomas Wazhushk is a fictional version of her own grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, a real tribal hero who testified before Congress to fight the Termination bill. The last line of the novel occupies a page all its own: “The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was not terminated.”
Arthur W. Watkins, the actual Utah senator who interrogated Patrick Gourneau, joins Erdrich’s large cast. He was a Mormon with “an aggressive air of cleanliness and godliness” who became convinced that Native Americans rights interfered with Mormon revelation. Thomas and a small platoon of tribal representatives (including Patrice, who excels) make an epic journey to Washington to prove him wrong. It is a joyful, if fraught, episode in the long tribal narrative.
A character in “Love Medicine,” Erdrich’s first novel, says “Love is a stony road.” The sprawling plots and crowded stages of all her novels since are really just continuations of this thought. Each of the characters in “The Night Watchman” has a toehold on the rocky terrain of love.
Erdrich doesn’t speak in grand terms about the persistence that keeps her Turtle Mountain band on their native ground. She shows us instead, one by one, what love of a homeland means to her characters and why they choose fidelity over dispersal. These are new characters for Erdrich. If we’re lucky, she’ll let us meet them again in a sequel.