‘Nameless Greatness’

An Interview with Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich (Alession Jacona / Flickr)

Louise Erdrich has occupied a central position in American literature since the publication of her debut novel, Love Medicine, in 1984. Her novels exhibit formal intricacy (Faulkner is a regular comparison), while also providing the pleasures of good old-fashioned storytelling (“I have the addict’s need to get lost in the story,” she has said). Raised in North Dakota by a Chippewa mother and a German father, Erdrich is interested in Native experience and all the complexities—historical and social, cultural and political—that this experience entails.

Erdrich’s latest and seventeenth novel, The Night Watchman, arises from a history that is national in scope and personal in nature. In the 1940s and ’50s, the U.S. Congress sought to fundamentally alter the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. No longer would tribes be recognized as sovereign nations; instead, they would be expected to assimilate and cede much of their land. In 1953, House Concurrent Resolution 108 announced termination as the avowed policy of the United States. Five tribes would be terminated immediately. All tribes would be terminated eventually. As David Treuer puts it in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, “In legal terms...it was the death of Indians as Indians.”

One of the tribes selected for immediate termination was the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, of which Patrick Gourneau, Erdrich’s grandfather, was a member and tribal chairman. The Night Watchman tracks Gourneau’s concerted, and ultimately successful, effort to resist termination. In Erdrich’s hands, Gourneau becomes Thomas Wazhashk—“named for the muskrat, wazhashk, the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent.” Thomas works long hours as a night watchman at the jewel bearing plant and spends the rest of his waking hours rallying other Chippewa against the Termination Bill. His story is intercut with that of Patrice Paranteau, a smart, willful young Native woman (she “did things perfectly when enraged”) who also works at the plant and seeks to rescue a sister who has disappeared in Minneapolis.

The Night Watchman is a story of political courage told with Erdrich’s distinctive blend of the visionary and the realistic. I spoke with the novelist recently via email.

 

Anthony Domestico: You write in the book’s afterword that “the memory of termination has faded even among American Indian people.” Why do you think this period has been forgotten, and what drew you to it as a novelist?

Louise Erdrich: I will amend my statement by saying that for Tribal Nations who were terminated during the 1950’s to 1970, there is no blank spot. They suffer from what happened to this day. But for people whose tribes fought termination and prevailed, the memory of what happened is fuzzier. It didn’t happen, so the history is not so immediate. It would be as if COVID-19 had been immediately contained. Most people would think of it like SARS—an indistinct threat.

AD: Thomas Wazhashk is based upon your grandfather, Patrick Gourneau—a night watchman and tribal leader who fought against termination and whose letters, written to your parents in 1953 and 1954, you have read “for solace or inspiration.” Did that personal connection to this story and person present particular difficulties when you sat down to write?

LE: This was, indeed, difficult for me. I felt that I couldn’t quote his actual letters, for instance, because that was too personal. A sense of place, deeply felt and described, often stands in for character with Thomas. Also, I used objects, like the quilt he sleeps beneath. That quilt made of remembered coats is real. The descriptions of the jewel bearing plant and his efforts to stay awake were often referred to in his letters. Staying awake was a huge struggle for my grandfather. For me it became a metaphor for what he really did—watching over his people during a time of darkness.

AD: Thomas is a fundamentally good man: honest, caring, responsible. Simone Weil has written about the challenges of representing goodness in fictional form: “Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” What were some strategies you used to make Thomas’s imaginary goodness as marvelous as your grandfather’s real goodness?

LE: There is a quote from William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” which is used to great effect in Kate Atkinson’s novel A God In Ruins: “That best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.” Atkinson writes movingly about a decent man who nonetheless commits unspeakable violence for the sake of his country. I wish that I’d read her book before writing The Night Watchman. The goodness of Atkinson’s character is most apparent in the trust that others put in him. One detail about my grandfather that I didn’t put in the book was this: in spite of how hungry he was during his field work, he always saved half a sandwich from his lunchbox for my mother. As a child, she was always delighted to have that treat. Eventually she realized what a sacrifice for him that was and stopped asking. But that story tells me the sort of man I was writing about. In his letters my grandfather takes great joy in the trust of children and recounts details about the things they do and say. I remember him that way. I tried to layer Thomas’s character with small acts of kindness, but I wasn’t aware of doing that until now, answering this question.

I don’t have a religion because I don’t understand what human rules have to do with an incomprehensible God.

AD: At one point, Patrice thinks that “time did not exist at her house. Or rather, it was the keeping of time as in school or work time that did not exist.” This idea—that time is understood and experienced differently within the Chippewa community—returns on several occasions. What is distinctive about Chippewa notions of time?

LE: I received a watch for my thirtieth birthday, and it rather depressed me. I had purposely not kept track of hours except by random readings of clocks and the changes in the light. This meant I was sometimes late for appointments, which is why the watch was given to me. Our notions of clock time are necessary human impositions on a mystery nobody completely understands. During this time of quarantine, people often remark on how their sense of time has shifted. For instance, in our house it always seems to be Tuesday. So we have First Tuesday, Second Tuesday, Middle Tuesday, Double Tuesday, and so on. When Native children were taken from home and delivered to government boarding schools, they were taken from lives of natural time to lives measured in fifteen- and thirty-minute increments. I have a copy of the schedule of my grandfather’s days at the Fort Totten boarding school, which was run on a military system. To me this seems a violence. To take a child existing in a flow of time to endure a chopped-up life— well, at least it should be done incrementally and kindly. As in pre-school.

AD: You write that Patrice “had followed most of her mother’s teachings but also become a Catholic.” That twinned identity—Native American and Catholic—describes many of your characters, and it describes yourself as well. Has being raised Catholic informed your own understanding of time, memory, and storytelling? Do you see yourself as, among other things, a Catholic writer?

LE: Being raised as a Catholic is indelible for a writer partly because of its powerful narratives: the stations of the cross, the lives of the saints, the New Testament, of course. When I think of time in Catholicism, I hear bells. When I think of memory, I think of rules that must be followed. But I loved the drama of symbolism. I was enthralled by the meanings behind the sumptuous colors of the priest’s vestments and the shrouding of statues during Lent. The list goes on. I thought a great deal about the sorrow of Mary, the enigmatic nature of her son. Catholicism gave me a lot to chew on.

The same is true of teaching stories used in Ojibwe religion. I wasn’t raised with those, but later on I became obsessed with trickster stories, which are based on the ironies of existence. Indigenous stories are in some ways more sophisticated than the Bible because they include the reality that we are only animals among animals, one thing among many, although we comically strive to pretend otherwise.

My grandfather followed his traditional religion, but also attended Mass. The idea that you could be both was definitely formed by my family’s, and my own, friendships with Benedictine priests and sisters on the Turtle Mountain reservation. The tolerant Benedictines left and were replaced by the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, or SOLT, an evangelical missionary order. I don’t know what the circumstances of the switch were, but SOLT is more rigid about not mixing doctrines and maintains a hardcore presence with long gray cassocks and heavy-soled black boots. I think Benedictines are funnier. When I asked a Benedictine priest what he thought about SOLT, he smiled and said, “They need more peppah.”

AD: After Patrice criticizes the “rules and trappings of ritual [that] had nothing to do with God,” she describes where she actually finds the divine: “She thought that maybe people in contact with that nameless greatness had a way of catching at the edges, a way of being pulled along or even entering this thing beyond experience.” For you, what does art—fiction, poetry, and painting, all of which you’ve practiced—have to do with that “nameless greatness”?

LE: Art does offer a way to enter the mysterious flow of experience and to take joy in creation. So yes, this is partly what Patrice means. Also, she describes a form of elation or praise that is outside of the rules of religions. Most religions have practices, which have rules, which so often put women in second place. I don’t have a religion because I don’t understand what human rules have to do with an incomprehensible God. Religions are good for community, but I have a bookstore.

AD: As you mention, you own a bookstore in Minneapolis. How has the store been holding up during the coronavirus pandemic? What role do you see for bookstores, and for books more generally, in this time of isolation?

LE: Books are providing solace and people are reading a lot these days. Books have lots of advantages. For one thing, they are portable and still work if they get rained on or dropped. I see people reading books everywhere—in hammocks, on lawn chairs, on blankets. I think in this time of isolation people also appreciate the intimacy of books, the chance to engage deeply with a stranger, to marvel (or possibly scoff at) at the workings of another human mind.

The bookstore, Birchbark Books, was started as a place to showcase Native literature, history, politics, culture, and art. We have an online store for Native art as well. We are also a general bookstore where people can pick up the latest novels, memoirs, poetry, nonfiction, and young-adult and children's books. We’ve moved online and to curbside pickup. We’ll probably be open by appointment, perhaps when the number of cases falls here in Minnesota. For safety, we have staggered our shifts so only one person at a time fills orders and takes calls. That person is always busy. I’m thankful for the level of support we’ve experienced during this time.

Published in the September 2020 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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