The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi cultural)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5

I’m grasping for words to express how much I loved this book but all the good words — profound, brilliant, amazing, etc. — have been rendered meaningless through overuse. So just think about what they used to mean and apply here.

The novel is based on the experiences of Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, in his determined fight against the proposed termination of his Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa named in House Concurrent Resolution 108 passed in August of 1953. Gourneau is fictionalized as Thomas Wazhashk.

While that is the overarching plot line, the story is told as a set of short chapters from various character viewpoints. While the termination fight touches everyone, much of the content covers the progression of individual lives in the community. Pixie Paranteau supports her family with earnings from a job at the new jewel bearing plant; her sister, Vera, has disappeared in the Cities and has been caught in the underbelly of the beast; Wood Mountain is becoming a top boxer, training with Barnes, a local white coach with eyes glued on Pixie; Millie Cloud is in Minneapolis and has authored a study of her father’s reservation which will be useful in the fight against termination; and Thomas spends his nights as the Night Watchman at the plant — struggling to stay awake by writing letters using the Palmer Method ingrained in him at the Indian boarding school. Other characters are ghostly visitors, Mormon missionaries, and various officials from the BIA, congress, and tribal councils.

Erdrich’s characters are wonderful — each one an individual that defies stereotype; each one full of complexities that never descend into entertaining “quirks.” In contrast, we do see the usual stereotypes through the perspective of others — in Barne’s memory of the “luscious” Indian girls depicted in ads and earnest lectures given by the missionaries, for example.

What I love most about this book is Erdrich’s articulation of the feelings, perspectives, and philosophies of the various characters. Thomas, in his desperation to leverage every possible angle available to him reads the Book of Mormon to better understand the bill’s author — Arthur V. Watkins — a staunch Mormon. He has discussions with Barnes about why Indians can’t / don’t want to become “regular” Americans and why Barnes could never “become” an Indian. He is immensely philosophical, and we are treated to his thinking, his process, and his growing understanding of life and his part of this world. Every chapter is full of enlightening description and presence.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time and by far my favorite Erdrich book. The Pulitzer committee definitely got it right this time.

Some quotes:
“This termination bill. Arthur V. Watkins believed it was for the best. To uplift them. Even open the gates of heaven. How could Indians hold themselves apart, when the vanquishers sometimes held their arms out, to crush them to their hearts, with something like love?”

“Thomas was convinced that he’d destroyed their chances. He couldn’t point out exactly how he’d done it, but he knew. And the other thing. The senator had also asked every single Indian person who testified about their degree of Indian blood. The funny thing was, nobody knew exactly.”

“Especially Senator Watkins. The word supercilious. That was the word for every detail. Watkins’ coin-purse mouth. His self-righteous ease. The way he held himself, giving off that vibration. Filling the air with sanctimony. Another word that flung itself into her mind.”

“She was inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit. The same spirit had hatched the bird that pecked Bucky’s face. When she got home, she’d clean up the sweat lodge and ask her mother to help her get rid of these thoughts.”

“All were cast together onto allotments, to break apart the earth, to learn the value of a dollar, and then how to make one dollar into many dollars and cultivate the dollar into a way of life.”

“His father was so very old now that he slept most of the day. He was ninety-four. When Thomas thought of his father, peace stole across his chest and covered him like sunlight.”

“To most of their neighbors, Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness and shame. Except the good ones. There was always “a good Indian” that someone knew.”

“For days. he’d tried to make sense of the papers, to absorb their meaning. To define their unbelievable intent. Unbelievable because the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language. Unbelievable because the intent was, finally, to unmake, to unrecognize. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.”

“Emancipation. This word would not stop banging around in his head. Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.”

“He wasn’t one for giving names to things. Or finding their basis. His feelings were like weather. He just suffered or enjoyed them.”

“He felt it coming. Wanted to duck. Winced. A sensation like when he was chastised at school gripped him. Like when he went into a bank or bought something expensive in an off-reservation town. Their looks pressing down on him. Their words flattening him. Their eyes squeezing him. Isey, for shame. As his mother used to say. But it was so much worse in English, the word shame.” It made him curdle inside. And the curdling became something hard in his stomach. Or a thought that stabbed so hard he might cast it out in a flare of anger. Or it might stay in there hardening even further until it flew up to his brain and killed him.”

The Return by Hisham Matar

A beautifully written memoir by a man whose life has been steeped in exile. The narrative follows his 2012 return to Libya — the first time he has set foot in the country since his family fled in 1979 when he was eight. Living primarily in England, he has been constantly trying to find out what happened to his father, Jaballa Matar, who “disappeared” in 1990 at the height of Qaddafi’s reign of terror. Flashbacks to childhood, his father’s disappearance, and the persistent and largely unfulfilled quest for information comprise most of the text. Various family artifacts and conversations introduce even more history — his grandfather’s arrest and escape in the time of Mussolini, short stories written by his father as a young man, and interviews with those who had memories of his father in prison.

This is a memoir, not an objective work; however it is steeped in the history of the region. The personal is an overlay on the political and social history of Libya from the Italian invasion of 1911 through the present. I found it very helpful to jot down a timeline of events as they are delivered when relevant to his thinking / discovery / memory, rather than in any chronological order. The personal reflection is profound — he grows up almost entirely away from the place and people he calls home, in the shadow of an absent father who is either hero or traitor depending on who is doing the talking. His prose is vivid, but not overly emotionalized. The description of the politics and bureaucracy involved in even trying to find out whether or not his father is still alive is stunning — in the literal sense of the word.

Pulitzer Prize winner! Definitely worth reading.

Some quotes:
“There is no country where the oppressed and the oppressor are so intertwined as in Libya.”

“That slightly stifled gait all political prisoners have. As though oppression were toxic sediment that lingered in the muscles.”

“They were a gift sent back through time, opening a window onto the interior landscape of the young man who was to become my father.”

“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure.”