2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner

Before the Dutch, the Spaniards, the French, and the British arrived and “discovered” what we all refer to as the great United States of America, American Indians have long established their own strongholds in various part of the American continent. For centuries, they have been enjoying the tranquility of community life, content in the simplicity of domestic life. This was until Europeans came into the scene, seizing every space they can. With an insatiable appetite, the white men scoured every nook and cranny, pushing the natives into the defensive. As they were pushed to the fringes, the natives started losing lands they once owned and cultivated. Decades thence, the natives still face oppression and their legacies are put in question.

The current government, ironically dominated by descendants of the European invaders, have long tried to further suppress the Native’s rights and domains through legislation. One such proposed legislation was House Concurrent Resolution 108, announced by the United States Congress in August 1, 1953. The legislation introduced measures to repudiate nation-to-nation treaties which were made with the American Indian nations for “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” The legislation also sought the termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, to which Patrick Gourneau belonged. As the tribal chairman, Gourneau was at the forefront of the fight against this drastic new measure.

Decades later after this monumental struggle, Gourneau’s granddaughter would be inspired by his life and his fight against the tribe’s termination. His granddaughter, renowned writer Louise Erdrich, crafted a narrative that was eventually published as The Night Watchman. A fictionalized account of this seminal phase of the Turtle Mountain Band’s history, The Night Watchman zeroes in on Thomas Wazhushk. The readers meet Wazhushk while he was working as a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant. It was the first factory built near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota and was where gems and semi-precious stones are drilled for use in military artillery and watches.

“The sun was low in the sky, casting slant regal light. As they plodded along, the golden radiance intensified until it seemed to emanate from every feature of the land. Trees, brush, snow, hills. She couldn’t stop looking. The road led past frozen sloughs that bristled with scorched reeds. Clutches of red willow burned. The fans and whips of branches glowed, alive. Winter clouds formed patterns against the fierce gray sky. Scales, looped ropes, the bones of fish. The world was tender with significance.”

~ Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman

While working as the night watchman, Wazhushk was also the tribal chairman of the Reservation. His mettle as the chieftain was challenged when House Concurrent Resolution 108 was announced by the United States Congress. It was aimed at denying Native American tribes the benefits granted by treaties previously signed with the U.S. government, such as the provision of basic structures for medical care, education, and social welfare. This, however, was just the tip of the iceberg as this measure also impinged on the tribes’ claims on their lands, eventually forcing them out of the reservations and moving into the cities.

The primary narrative thread follows Wazhushk’s as he organizes a solid plan to counter the legislation which will further shrink the plot of land they possess. The Chippewas were once powerful hunters and gatherers but were forced into agriculture in order to survive. Barely receive any assistance or even recognition from the government, the tribe was cognizant that the only way to fully counter the legislation is to build a solid case and present it before the Congress and the Senate. Without a minute to waste, Wazhushk sought the wisdom of the more knowledgeable members of the tribe and recruited the assistance of experts to further their cause. With indefatigable resolve, Wazhushk journeyed to different parts of the country to build a case for his tribe. His journey culminated with an appearance before the Senate Committee in Washington D.C.

Whilst Wazhushk concerns himself with his duties as the tribe’s chief, members of Thomas’ family and also the extended families of the reservation were introduced by Erdrich. At the forefront of this eclectic albeit diverse mix of characters is Wazhushk’s niece, old Patrice Paranteau who worked at the local jewel bearing plant where her uncle was the night watchman. At the young age of nineteen, Patrice, who used to be called Pixie during her high school years, was the sole breadwinner for her family , supporting her mother and brother. The family patriarch was alcoholic and chronically stole from her daughter. Meanwhile, her older sister, Vera, left for the city and has since made herself scarce from her family. However, Vera’s absence left a gaping hole that Patrice tried to find the answer to.

As Patrice traced her sister’s tracks in Minneapolis, the last known place where Vera was seen, she got to witness a world that was so foreign from the world of the Reservation. In the guise of a coming-of-age story, the narrative thread that followed Patrice’s journey in Minneapolis was also a subtle portrayal of the fate that awaits members of the tribes once the resolution is approved as a law. Albeit the sense of excitement at the prospect of moving into uncharted territories, there always a daunting feeling, as Patrice learned. She was ushered into a world where discrimination and exploitation are both ubiquitous.

“Her hair, shoulders, and back grew damp. But moving kept her warm. She slowed to pick her way through places where water was seeping up through the mats of dying grass. Rain tapping through the brilliant leaves the only sound. She stopped. The sense of something there, with her, all around her, swirling and seething with energy. How intimately the trees seized the earth. How exquisitely she was included.”

~ Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman

Recently, CNN broadcaster and former US Senator Rick Santorum earned the ire of many with a speech he gave to a conservative youth group. He was quoted saying, “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.” This statement, made in the 21st century, a time where information is readily available, further underscored how the influences of the Native Americans were continuously undermined. This also highlighted the years of oppression made on the original settlers in the American continent.

At its heart, The Night Watchman is the intimate portrait of reservation life. The readers get to see, or read, how Native Americans interact with each other, and with the world beyond them. The reservation, however, was never safe from the influences of the outside world. The jewel bearing plant, for instance, employed many of the locals, consequently exploiting their labor in exchange for meager compensation. The reservation have also become more accessible to non-natives as white men like Lloyd Barnes and two young Mormon missionaries find their way into the Chippewa landscape.

An account of reservation life would not be complete without the darker shades. Erdrich, whilst focusing on the story of Patrice and Thomas, devoted hefty attention to the challenges the natives had to grapple with, such as destitution, unemployment, and alcoholism. Domestic violence was also prevalent. At the factory, female workers also had to contend an atmosphere where sexual abuse is always a step away. One can never let his or her guard down. At one point, Patrice was nearly the victim of sexual assault. Some, like Vera, dream of running away from their roots and cannot be helped. By giving an intimate picture of reservation life, Erdrich gave the narrative a different complexion.

Overall, the narrative, however, came off as uneven and inconsistent. It was weighed down by several unnecessary elements. There were one too many characters. Some of these characters were inconsequential, almost caricatural, and were obviously drawn to provide comic relief. The narrative threads, both distinct and bold, also never converged down the road. In particular, Patrice’s story meandered and was bereft of the urgency of her uncle’s story. There was also an unnatural, almost unhealthy, effort in elevating Patrice to a heroine that she came off, at times, as superficial. The character’s lack of psychological complexity made up for a bland reading experience. The primary characters even came off as monochromatic.

“Emancipation. Emancipation. 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. Overnight, the tribal chairman job had turned into a struggle to remain a problem to not be solved.”

~ Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman

Whilst the novel had the tendency to meander, the beauty of Erdrich’s prose came across in The Night Watchman. She employed elements of magical realism in her narrative. Folklore and the magical are two important facets of Native American culture. As the lines between the supernatural and the real were blurred, the characters have encounters with the ethereal and the otherworldly. Thomas himself gets to witness some of these supernatural activities as he sees the spirit of a young boy during his nightly rounds.

Erdrich’s prose flourished when the characters made connections with their environment and then nature was made a part of the narrative. At one point, Patrice was described as: “She could hear the humming rush of the tree drinking from the earth. She closed her eyes, went through the bark like water, and was sucked up off the bud tips into a cloud.” Another passage described: “The stars were impersonal. But they took human shapes and arranged themselves in orders that conveyed directions to the next life. There was no time where he was going. He’d always thought that inconceivable. For years now he’d understood that time was all at once, back and forth, upside down. As animals subject to the laws of earth, we think time is experience. But time is more a substance, like air, only of course not air. It is in fact a holy element.”

The Night Watchman was recently awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Parts magical realism, parts historical fiction, parts coming-of-age story, the novel had its highs and lows. Erdrich, with her capable and bold strokes, painted a community that was struggling to keep up with the challenges emanating from all corners of society, both official, and unofficial. In the Chippewas, we see a group of people hounded by the rapid development taking place around them. Despite the challenges, the readers see a community that, when the need arises, can unite and stand up against these very same forces that oppress them.

Ratings

65%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

The Night Watchman was my first Louise Erdrich novel although I bought one of her novels previously; I never got the chance to read it. Admittedly, I would have never considered buying her latest novel had my interest not been piqued by its inclusion in USA Today’s list of Best books of 2020 so far: What USA TODAY’s critics loved reading. I thought, well, I haven’t read any of her works before so I might as well start somewhere. I was really looking forward into delving into an uncharted territory for Erdrich’s works seemed popular. To some point, I did like The Night Watchman. That was until it diverged into different directions. Once it meandered, it lost my interest. The plotline following the progress of the tribe’s struggle against House Concurrent Resolution 108 was seminal in the story. However, I find its impact mostly was ephemeral as it was weighed down by the other elements of the story.

Book Specs

Author:  Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 444
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Based on the extraordinary life of Louise Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity, and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of a literary master.

Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the jewel-bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new “emancipation” bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn’t about freedom: Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run”?

Since graduating from high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that pays barely enough to support her mother and younger brother. Patrice’s alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children, and to bully Patrice for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn’t been in touch in months and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence and endangers her life.

Thomas and Patrice live in a reservation community. We also come to know young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother, Juggie Blue, and Patrice’s best friend, Valentine, as well as Hay Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopefully in love with Patrice.

In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, with and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from one of the most acclaimed writers of our time.

About the Author

Karen Louise Erdrich was born on June 7, 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, USA, the oldest of seven children of Ralph Erdrich, a German-American, and Rita (née Gourneau), a Chippewa woman (of half Ojibwe and half French blood).

In 1972, Erdrich attended Dartmouth College, becoming part of the first class of women admitted to the university. Her subsequent literary career was greatly influenced by her encounter with Michael Dorris, an anthropologist, writer, and hen-director of the new Native American Studies program, during her freshman year. Attending his class, Erdrich started looking into her own ancestry. To support her studies, Erdrich took on a range of different jobs, working as a lifeguard, waitress, researcher for films, and as an editor for the Boston Indian Council newspaper The Circle. She completed her A.B. in English in 1976. Two years later, she enrolled n a Master of Arts program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She earned the Master of Arts in the Writing Seminars in 1979. After completing her graduate studies, returned to Dartmouth as a writer-in-residence.

While attending Dartmouth, Erdrich received her first literary award, the 1975 American Academy of Poets Prize. In 1979, she wrote the short story The World’s Greatest Fisherman. She submitted it to the Nelson Algren Short Fiction prize in 1982, which it won. Eventually, the short story became the first chapter of her debut novel, Love Medicine (1984). It won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award and was  featured on the National Advanced Placement Test for Literature. Love Medicine was eventually expanded into a tetralogy, succeeded by The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), and The Bingo Palace (1994). Her latest novel, The Night Watchman (2020) recently won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Erdrich has also published a score of short stories and short story collections, poems, children’s fiction, and nonfiction works. She has also copped several literary awards such as the 2009 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Plague of Doves, 2012 National Book Award for Fiction for The Round House, 2014 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for LaRose.

Erdrich, after a successful literary partnership, eventually married Michael Dorris in 1981. The couple had six children; three children whom Dorris had adopted as a single parent, and three biological children together. In 1995, the couple separated. Erdrich currently resides in Minneapolis.