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.