Erdrich’s broad tale frequently lights on memorable perches, but at times her less well-constructed form causes the book to feel like the sketch of a larger work.
Louise Erdrich mastered the art of blending various narratives early in her career. Her debut novel Love Medicine, which won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, mixed voices and genres in creating its vision of interconnected families. That art would expand over the years as her novels further explored that same fictional community, mixing postmodern technique with Faulknerian world-building and Native American tradition. For her new novel The Night Watchmen she relies on intertwining stories to capture an under-explored moment in history. Her broad tale frequently lights on memorable perches, but at times her less well-constructed form causes the book to feel like the sketch of a larger work.
The story centers around actual events connected to Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau in the 1950s, during the US government’s attempt to terminate a number of Native American tribes, including Gourneau’s Turtle Mountain Chippewa band. Gourneau provides the inspiration for the fictional protagonist Thomas Wazhashk. The novel follows Wazhashk’s work to defeat the congressional proposal, all while tracking the lives in his orbit. Erdrich looks at the complications of friendship, love and politics, while touching on human trafficking, coming of age and more. As expected, it’s a massive, memorable vision. As less expected, it doesn’t quite hold together.
Erdrich follows various characters down their own pathways and by the end of the book, these storylines cohere, but some of them aren’t fully realized. Patrice Paranteau tracks her missing sister Vera to Minneapolis, beginning a dark mystery story, but it all moves too quickly and wraps up without satisfaction. Vera’s tale stands almost as an add-on; without some glimpses of her, the book’s ending wouldn’t make sense, but her sections feel tossed-off and disconnected. Similarly, other characters have enough narrative to make Erdrich’s kaleidoscope work, but not enough to feel essential. A series of books in this new world – one in which the characters intersect but have their own stories fully told – would have been more rewarding.
Despite some formal issues, The Night Watchman still succeeds on the strength of its quiet storytelling and its memorable characters. In his sleep-deprived fortitude, Thomas holds the multiple narratives together. His perseverance and his sense of wonder, allow Erdrich’s mix of steady realism and warm mythology to cohere. Patrice provides much of the book’s energy and surprise as a fully developed character who can act in unexpected ways without feeling jarringly out of character. Erdrich usually draws distinct characters, and a novel with multiple storylines allows us not only to meet more of these individuals, but also to see them interact with each other in various settings.
While the characters transcend the structure of the novel, the central story itself carries great relevance. Erdrich resists didacticism at all points, but the picture of daily life mixed with political struggle resonates. In her afterword, she points out that our US government has resumed termination efforts, and her novel stands as both memory and contemporary encouragement. She closes the book by saying, “Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.” The Night Watchmen can do both, and the polite strength of Thomas Wazhashk (and Patrick Gourneau) reminds of our own power to persist.