Minnesota has produced and housed a legion of talented authors: Tim O’Brien, Maud Hart Lovelace, Sinclair Lewis, Shannon Gibney and, of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The state is not short of talent, but Louise Erdrich may rise to the top as the most talented and influential author in Minnesota history.
Erdrich has written and published dozens of novels, books, and collections of poetry, many of which focus on the experiences of Native Americans. In her most recent novel, “The Night Watchman,” Erdrich tells the story of her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. In 1953 Gourneau helped lead the fight against the proposed termination of the tribe. They won.
The National Library of Medicine explained that starting in 1953 Congress passed a resolution to terminate tribes throughout the country, meaning the tribes would be disbanded and, if they could not pay for their land, it would be taken from them and sold by the government. Native Americans would then be “relocated” to cities. Erdrich writes in her novel:
“In the newspapers, the author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of lofty words around this bill -- emancipation, freedom, equality, success -- that disguised its truth: termination. Termination. Missing only the prefix. The ex.”
“The Night Watchman” weaves together the story of Gourneau, the realities faced by many Native Americans who relocated to cities, and the generations that came before Gourneau. Erdrich seamlessly shows how the history of colonialism, the creation of reservations and the many horrors from boarding schools impact generation after generation.
While Erdrich writes about important and too frequently forgotten moments in U.S. history, she grabs and holds the reader’s attention with her incredible world-building, the life she breathes into her characters and her unique ability to tell a compelling story.
For first time readers of Erdrich, keep a pad of paper close to you while you read. The author introduces numerous characters in the beginning of the novel who may seem unimportant or unattached to the narrative arch. But by the end, each character plays an important role in the masterpiece.
-- Rachel Fergus
“The Night Watchman” is a gripping, moving story, made all the more impactful by its connection to true events.
In it Louise Edrich tells the story of her grandfather, through a proxy named Thomas Wazhashk, a man who fought against the termination of his tribe. Knowing Thomas is based on her grandfather, a very real person, makes the story more relatable because sometimes he seems like a character who is larger than life. Thomas is so dedicated to his family, his tribe and his heritage, so determined to do everything he can for all of them, his day so full of those efforts, that he rarely sleeps. His devotion is the driving force behind a novel full of emotion.
The character of Patricia is a smart and compelling addition to the story. She’s a contrast to Thomas in some ways, with her experiences as a young woman, but she shares the same dedication to family and community that he does.
At the beginning of the story, it seemed as if Thomas and Patricia would serve as the only main characters, but Edrich weaves in the stories and perspectives of so many other people throughout the novel. Through her storytelling, Edrich brings the entire tribe to life. We see clearly how their lives all interconnect, though at first they may have seemed separate. Their tribe and their heritage bind them all, and in the end we see this is truly a tale about community.
With each character Edrich brings the very human element of history to the forefront. We see, up close and personal, what the impact of the proposed termination act is on Native American people. None of them is a nameless figure, lost to time. We know each character, even minor ones, well — their backstory, their family connections, their struggles and their humanity.
-- Rebecca Mariscal
In December RiverTown Reads will be reading “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. This novel is about twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who are born in a Black, southern town and run away in their teens. Bennett’s novel follows the twins as they choose to lead different lives and the impacts that their decisions have on themselves and their families. To send us your reviews or future book recommendations contact Rebecca Mariscal (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Rachel Fergus (email@example.com).
Questions to consider when reading:
Had you heard of “passing” before Bennett’s novel? What was your reaction to characters deciding to “pass”?
Is there a character or storyline in the novel that most interests you? Why do you think that is?
Most of the novel takes place between the 1950s and 1990s. How does the story impact and relate to today? Do you think it’s still relevant?
The physical body and its appearance is important throughout the novel--the skin’s color, the way people show themselves to the world, how appearances and physical aspects of a body can be changed, etc. Why do you think that Bennett focuses on the body throughout her novel? How does each character present and interact with their own and other’s physical selves?
Throughout the novel Bennett contemplates and explores the idea of reality -- what is reality? When does a person know that they are being their real self? The author writes that, “eventually, remembering turned into imagining. How slight the difference was between the two.” What did you think about the conversation around reality? Have you experienced memory evolving into imagination? Why do you think that Bennett places an emphasis on reality throughout the novel?
Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?