I am not exactly sure why, but we didn’t delve too deeply into Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Night Watchman. The mood in the room was friendly and fond, with seven of us spread around the large table. Our first responder said the book reminded her of Jim Fergus’s One Thousand White Women, which is an engaging novel that imagines the attempt to assimilate Native Americans through a brides for Indians program.[i] Another of us was moved by the idea of the bear, found by accident and killed while hibernating. This brought in Patrice’s family’s gamey diet, potentially necessitated by poverty as much as by culture, as well as the frequent mention of Bannock bread, itself an import from Scotland. Still another member was struck by the idea that their ancestors had placed the dead in trees so that they would be “eaten by crows and vultures instead of worms. Your body went flying over the earth instead of being distributed to the tiny creatures living under the earth” (page 321).
One of us mentioned the trouble keeping up with all the characters and the jumping between viewpoints. Multiple views of sex stood out, including that of two horses in heat. We did not discuss in detail the relevance of these multiple sexual experiences, from the horror of Vera’s abuse to Patrice’s sexual awakening. We were glad that Erdrich did not describe the horror with the graphic detail some authors use, and we appreciated the humor, too, such as when one of the Mormon missionaries opened the backseat door of a car and Norbert went shooting outside: “He skidded off her body and flailed his way belly down onto the slick road” (383). Most of us did not relate to the mystical experiences. Could they have been drug induced? Why would the author include in her bio that “a ghost lives in her creaky old house?”[ii] We liked many elements of the story, though—good character development, strong women, good follow-up detail from the author, and we were especially impressed with Thomas (working nights, days, and writing all those letters!). We were fairly skeptical that Patrice could have survived the trip to Minneapolis, not believing Jack would have driven her around and acquiesced to her many demands.
But we learned a lot about a different culture. We noticed how these same issues are in the news today. From Supreme Court decisions to a recent Las Vegas Review Journal Article about “Indian Boarding Schools’ Legacy: ‘Pain,’ ‘Hell.’”[iii] We asked, what do you use a jeweled bearing for? Apparently, they are used when low friction, non-magnetic materials are required, such as in watches. I also shared information I learned about senator Arthur Watkins, whose New York Times biography did not even mention his involvement in the Indian Termination policy while the entry in the Encyclopedia of the American Indian that indicated “Watkins agreed to step in as the much-needed hatchet man against Senator McCarthy only on the condition that the president would support the CRSP, which was passed in 1956.”[iv] Erdrich noted that in 1970, Richard Nixon called for an end to “the long messy nightmare of termination” (page 448).We also got side-tracked onto a discussion of postal service changes! All in 45 minutes, because we also discussed upcoming library programs and our next book, which I chose to introduce us to a series character by William Kent Kreuger, only to find that “a significant element of this story involves the Indian Relocation act of 1956.”[v]It’s a small world after all.
[i] I have found no indication that the brides for Indians proposal was ever made or taken seriously if so, but the story is not only captivating, it does capture the very real conflict of resettling Native Americans that continues to this day.
[ii] The bio I included with the discussion questions came from the author’s publisher, Harper Collins Publishers, (https://www.harpercollins.com/blogs/authors/louise-erdrich). The statement about the ghost is not included in the book.
[iii] The article I saw was in the LVRJ, including a picture of “U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history.” Murphy, S. (2022, July 11). Indian boarding schools’ legacy: ‘Pain,’ ‘hell”. Las Vegas Review Journal, p. 2A. The full article can be found online: https://lasvegassun.com/news/2022/jul/09/tribal-elders-recall-painful-boarding-school-memor/
[iv] The CRSP stands for the Colorado River Storage Project. I accessed this article through the lvccld.org website.
Ewen, Alexander, and Jeffrey Wollock. “Watkins, Arthur Vivian.” Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century, Alexander Ewen, Facts On File, 1st edition, 2014. Credo Reference, https://lvccld.idm.oclc.org/login? url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/fofindian/watkins_arthur_vivian/0? institutionId=1492. Accessed 04 Jul. 2022.
[v] Krueger, W. K. (2021). Author’s Note. In Lightning strike. Thorndike Press, a part of Gale, a Cengage Company.