Note: This book review contains plot spoilers, but I will denote **SPOILERS** for any section containing secret plot info!
For the month of May, the Slanted Spines Book List reading is The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, which is about a handful of characters who live within a Native American reservation in North Dakota in the early 1950’s. In this story, Thomas, one of the main characters, receives word of a new bill that would terminate their reservation and effectively ruin an entire Chippewa community’s lives. Many of the residents are poor as it is, but the government—and one senator in particular—is determined to seize their land. While also working a job as a night watchman, Thomas goes to work writing letters and organizing the community in hopes that they can put a stop to this bill.
Meanwhile, Patrice, a young woman working at a jewelry bearing factory on the reservation, is worried about her missing older sister, Vera. Having left town to marry a man, Vera is now missing in the city. Neither Patrice or their mother have any idea where Vera is, but she can sense she is in danger—and that she has a baby.
Inspired by Erdrich’s own ancestry and her grandfather—who himself was a night watchman—this novel is a sensitive and brilliant tribute, as well as a vivid and enchanting story. Louise Erdrich has written a crap ton (give or take) of other literature, including sixteen novels, some poetry, children’s books, and even a memoir of motherhood. She herself is a member of the Chippewa band, and she lives in Minnesota with her family.
This was my first time reading Erdrich, and I really enjoyed my experience with this book! I’m also very excited to talk about it, so keep reading for my breakdown of the book!
But real quick!! I recently started a YouTube channel dedicated to talking about books. Click here to check it out! I even have an entire video dedicated to discussing this book! Okay, now back to the book review:
One of the joys of reading is getting to know an author’s writing style. It’s the foundation of the story; if the writing is weak, even an amazing story is bad. (And often, good writing keeps a bad story afloat!) Erdrich’s writing—I’m happy to report—is very good. Also, I’m so glad she wrote this book in third person because it enabled the reader to seamlessly weave in and out of characters’ lives during this novel.
When [Millie] stared at the patterns they took her inward and down, beyond the store and the town, into the foundations of meaning, and then beyond meaning, into a place where the structure of the world had nothing to do with the human mind and nothing to do with the patterns on a dress. A place simple, savage, ineffable, and exquisite. It was a place she went to every night.Page 380
In this novel, I loved the way Erdrich often beautifully blurred the distinction between hard-defined reality and the spirituality of nature, illustrating the inherent connectedness that the Chippewa feel with the earth and her spirits. They each have a relationship with the land and their ancestors, and thus they are open to experiences that white city folk may consider far-fetched or mystical.
To illustrate, here is a scene in which Patrice and her mother are merely drinking water, but Patrice’s soul is journeying beyond the surface level and touching the nature around her:
Together they drank the icy birch water, which entered them the way life entered the trees, causing buds to swell along the branches. Patrice leaned to one side and put her ear to the trunk of a birch tree. 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.Page 439
Here is another example of a passage I enjoyed; in this scene, Thomas’s father is daydreaming about his impending death:
Sometimes he thought that his spirit would fly from tree to tree like a curious bird. He imagined that he would watch the living, call and sing to them. But if he went too far with that idea, it made him lonely.Page 265
Occasionally, Erdrich would do something “different” with her chapters, such as in “Two Months” on page 332 when each section within it is headed by a character’s name (except one: “Words”). The fact that she added these headings was inconsequential; it didn’t affect how I understood the story, except to add clarity, which is probably why she did this. I appreciated the creativity in changing the format to suit the reader’s understanding. I probably would have understood from context who she was describing in each section even if she hadn’t, but by doing this, she was being a considerate narrator. (I wonder if her editor suggested this? Or if she even has an editor?)
While I try to appreciate each writer’s style for its unique voice, sometimes there are weak spots. There were a couple times when Erdrich confused me in really minor ways. She’s one of those writers who sometimes likes to allude rather than say, so it’s not uncommon for her to write a short chapter about a character without ever using their name. From context clues, it’s typically easy to discern who she means; in some cases, she leaves it intentionally unspoken to build anticipation (I believe). However, there were a few times when I’d have liked more clarity.
When writers write dialogue, I’m used to them keeping same speakers in the same paragraph. But sometimes, Erdrich breaks up their dialogue between paragraphs. For example:
“Well, I like it here,” said Patrice. “I like the bare walls.”
“You like the bare walls?”
It was hard for Millie to contain her elation. “I keep thinking I should put something up,” she said. “Pictures. But then I wonder, of what?”Page 416
When I get on a reading groove and have to keep back-tracking to clarify who’s speaking, it’s a little disrupting to me. I don’t see why she would separate these paragraphs, and it makes me think that perhaps she really didn’t utilize an editor.
There were also a few other moments when I felt the writing was awkwardly executed, but I can’t find where I marked them in my book…
The Verdict: Technical critiquing aside, I typically judge writing on whether or not I enjoyed it because at the end of the day, I’m reading this book to have an experience and explore new perspectives. Erdrich’s writing is very human and it complements the story she tells wonderfully.
This is also the first time I’ve read about the Chippewa native Americans, and it was very insightful to read Erdrich’s verbal illustrations of their varying personalities and culture. I’m also glad that Erdrich herself is Chippewa, because as a reader, I generally stay away from literature written about someone far removed from the group they’re writing about. For example, if a story is about a Muslim woman living in Pakistan, I typically check that the author has a substantial understanding of the matter (i.e. a woman, a Muslim woman, a resident of Pakistan, an investigator of Pakistani affairs, etc). (Also in general I strive to read predominantly female-authored literature.)
Which is all to say, there is integrity and compassion in the way Erdrich crafted these characters. While Thomas and Patrice emerge as the main characters of this book, each person is vivid and important in their own way, making for a really well-rounded group of characters.
Thomas, being an established, upstanding community member, is the metronome of the characters; he is the lowly yet diligent muskrat. Although he is perhaps the most important character, he undergoes little change throughout the novel. Rather, he is the role model. The leader. A good man. He faces significant challenges and dilemmas, and many people come to him for help with their own problems, but he meets each new situation with grace and determination—and good humor. Even when he is burnt out, exhausted, struggling with sleep deprivation, his spirits are still amiable, even if subdued. When he is locked outside of the factory in the cold winter night, he is visited by a showcase of spirits who ultimately rally him and he overcomes, managing to get back inside. In the end, he is the same man, only wiser.
Patrice, on the other hand, undergoes a lot of development. She is younger, more malleable, with much to learn and experience. Not only is she grappling with responsibilities such as providing for her family, carrying her weight of the household chores at home, and the incessant worrying about her sister Vera’s unknown condition, but she also faces more subtle, teenage-girl issues, such as the dynamics of female friendships, the complicated world of sex, and where her own future lies. She belongs to a younger generation of Chippewa, a generation that straddles the division between traditional Chippewa culture and the modern world which can look so enticing. As she works through all this, she—like Thomas—meets every obstacle headstrong and quietly determined, observing and reflecting, deciding and acting.
Another noteworthy character with a solid story arc is Wood Mountain, a young man who begins the story as a boxer with a crush on Patrice but by the end, has stepped up in a number of ways and comes into his own as a man navigating his own emotions.
Perhaps the most intriguing character was Patrice’s mother Zhaanat, who is one of those old, strong women who are so wise and spiritual that she seems like she literally was born from the earth.
Because everything was alive, responsive in its own way, capable of being hurt in its own way, capable of punishment in its own way, Zhaanat’s thinking was built on treating everything around her with great care.Page 190
I loved reading about the Chippewa community because that’s the sort of community I want to live in. One where neighbors help each other out—even when Thomas comes across Patrice’s father, drunk and stumbling in the middle of the night, Thomas tries to round him up and bring him home. It’s so easy to write off someone like that because his bad characteristics are glaringly upfront, but Thomas has so much good in his heart. And the way they speak with one another, friendly and understanding, never malicious, never for the sake of stirring drama. Often when characters are conflicted, they take time to themselves, dealing with their thoughts in solitude or with nature, such as when Patrice goes to the forest and winds up taking a nap in a bear cave, which was akin to a therapy session for her.
The Verdict: These characters were genuine and captivating to read about, and I felt connected to them as they explored their trials and triumphs.
The summary for this novel is long. (It’s so long that it goes on to the back flap! And yes, I’m talking about dust jackets here, you naughty.) When I decide to read a book, I want to know just enough about it to think I’ll enjoy it, but I hate knowing exactly where a plot is going. This is my gripe with movie trailers—where’s the restraint? Every action movie gives away their whole, uninspired plot in the trailer, so there’s hardly any reason to endure the entire predictable film. Anyway, my disdain for Hollywood aside…
Going into this book, the only thing I really knew for certain was that this is about a government bill in the 1950’s that threatened to terminate Native American reservations. And while this is largely the main plot line in the story, various story lines diverge from it like a river’s tributaries, taking the reader down several other unexpected yet enjoyable courses.
**SKIP TO CONCLUSION TO AVOID**
When Patrice first travels to the city to find Vera and incidentally becomes the perplexing blue ox water jack, I was terrified that Patrice was going to get “trapped” in the city, stuck working for scum bags! I was afraid that whatever horrible fate Vera met, Patrice would meet a similar one. It was my greatest relief when she and Wood Mountain escaped a week later!
And this is a perfect example of why I dislike when plots are “given away.” If I had known this, then I wouldn’t have read so eagerly, feeling an emotional response of genuine concern. Because I only knew Thomas and Patrice’s beginnings, each scene promised to take the novel in an entirely different direction for me. It’s like life! We find out as we go! We feel more connected to the characters, rather than god-like knowing where the outcome lies.
The plot was easy to follow, contained enough to keep me interested, and took a lovely course. The drama that occurs in this book comes from a place quite human and clearly not written for the mere sake of having characters cause problems; this is no soap opera, thank goodness. Real, life-threatening things happen, but they happen in very natural, lifelike way.
So the ending seemed… not abrupt, per se, but underwhelming. When Vera comes home, I felt a wave of happiness. Finally! This poor woman has been through so much mistreatment, and she is home with her family, at last. I wrote, “Vera!!” at the top of the page. However, while Patrice and her mother are happy to have her back, they don’t make a grand affair of it. In fact, they’ve been more or less “following” Vera’s journey spiritually through some inexplicable connection across space. The entirety of the book, she has been missing and suffering, and this is the one line Erdrich dedicates to this joyous conclusion:
She collapsed like snow. By the time [Wood Mountain] got her back up and put the baby in her arms, Zhaanat was home and the two were clutching each other with the baby between them.Page 413
So then I was like, “Well, when Patrice gets home, surely that will be a rewarding, moving moment in this story.” But Patrice’s arrival home is brushed over in a sentence dedicated to Wood Mountain: “Once Patrice returned and went back to her job, [Wood Mountain] usually came during the times she was at work” (page 430). Ugh!! Indulge me, Erdrich!
On top of that, the verdict of the bill—the bill that put so much at stake—is given as a one-line fact!
The Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa was not terminated.Page 444
I brought this up to my mom in a phone call. “I just wanted a little more… Juice,” I said. (Actually I didn’t use the word “juice” but it conveys my gist.) She brought up a really keen observation though, which is that it was never the characters’ style to make a “big deal” about anything. As I thought about it, I understood a little more. When Patrice’s drunkard father came around, Zhaanat, she, and Pokey would deal with him like it was regular business, no fuss about it. When Patrice came home with Vera’s baby, Zhaanat accepted the baby as her own, never complaining. Zhaanat even goes after a hibernating bear to kill it—well, it’s never specifically said, yet implied (perhaps Thomas helped). So, we could probably make a case for why Erdrich left the conclusion a little brief.
At the same time, Erdrich dedicated a lot of imagery to other, less important scenes. She often gave single paragraphs their own chapters, such as “The Names” on page 345, which reflects on how Zhaanat feels that names of places affect the people who live in them. I enjoyed this page very much, but it could have easily been excluded and the story wouldn’t have changed at all. I only bring this up because it seems lopsided that Erdrich would focus so much prose into building up other elements of the book, but not quite following through with this one.
The Verdict: Having enjoyed the novel so much and gotten to know the characters throughout, of course I would have been happy to read another 50 pages; however, the story altogether unfolded pleasantly and I can respect Erdrich’s brevity.
At the same time this is a story about the Turtle Mountain reservation, it poses a myriad of perspectives regarding issues such as:
- How is a young Native American growing up in a new generation of America supposed to choose between her Chippewa culture and assimilation into the modern world? What sacrifices must she make with either choice?
- What does America owe (if anything) to its Native American inhabitants?
- What is the future for reservations?
- What constitutes a belief as “religion”?
- How can white people and Native Americans reconcile and move forward?
- Is there a way to “correct” what white America has done to harm the Native American way of life?
- How is the female Native American experience different from the male Native American experience?
- Why does so much animosity and prejudice towards Native Americans still exist?
This book actually discusses quite a bit. It touches on alcohol and drug abuse, sexual assault, human trafficking, racism and prejudice, modernity, colonization, expressions of religion, violence in sports like boxing, losing a toxic family member, and community bonds. Boy, there’s a lot to unpack! For this reason, I’m going to share merely two quotes I found poignant and extrapolate on them a little, starting with one bit of advice from Zhaanat:
And Patrice thought another thing her mother said was definitely true—you never really knew a man until you told him you didn’t love him. That’s when his true ugliness, submerged to charm you, might surface.Page 344
When I read this, I had to read it again. I imagine most women have had at least one experience like this—a man compliments her, she politely declines his advance, and the man lashes out in any variety of spiteful, ego-wounded ways. The “charm” was a front, deployed to manipulate a beautiful woman into bending to his desires, usually sexual. Unfortunately, Patrice experienced this lesson firsthand when Bucky kindly invited her for a car ride during which she had no idea she would be sexually assaulted.
Another unwanted pursuer of Patrice is Barnes. When Barnes drops off Pokey one day, he tries to see Patrice by going inside to visit Zhaanat, and to his disappointment, Patrice is not there. Zhaanat—translated through Pokey—says she knows why Barnes is there. (I love this woman!) She discourages his crush, saying Patrice doesn’t like him because he smells bad. Barnes leaves, and Pokey expresses his frustration with her comment saying that Barnes will merely shower to fix the problem, but Zhaanat replies that her meaning is deeper than deodorant, “Even if he washes, he’ll still smell like they do” (page 84). This is the indirect way Zhaanat rejects Barnes; she tells him he smells bad rather than explain he’s just a creepy white guy and risk upsetting him.
Another passage I underlined is the following excerpt from a scene when Barnes visits Thomas and seeks guidance regarding his hopeless crush on Patrice. Barnes asks if he could become an Indian by marrying her:
Not for the first time, [Thomas] felt sorry for a white fellow. There was something about some of them—their sudden thought that to become an Indian might help. Help with what? Thomas wanted to be generous. But also, he resisted the idea that his endless work, the warmth of his family, and this identity that got him followed in stores and ejected from restaurants and movies, this way he was, for good or bad, was just another thing for a white man to acquire.Page 214
Thomas then responds, No, Barnes could not ever be an Indian, but that he would be welcome regardless, and this small yet honest token of hope comforts Barnes.
This bit is interesting to me. Barnes, an outsider to their reservation, is a good albeit ignorant man. His interest in becoming a welcome part of their group is motivated by his infatuation with Patrice and not a genuine love and understanding of their ways of life. While he interacts with Indians every day and teaches at the school, Barnes is still a product of his upbringing and thus he has an outsider’s vague knowledge of the Chippewa.
When Thomas tells Barnes he can’t just “become” an Indian, it’s not out of malice or revenge. He’s diplomatic about it; he doesn’t want to shoot down Barnes’s attempt to bond with his community, but it’s also not up to Barnes to decide what he gets to be or own. Thomas’s thoughts are informed by history, how the white man came to North America and decided, “I want this land,” and then disposed of the Native Americans in whatever inhumane ways were most effective. This trend of entitlement is a state of mind bred into white people; Arthur Watkins wants the land their reservation is on, and so he uses the government’s power to get what he wants. Barnes wants Pixie, so he should have her, shouldn’t he? Does he ever stop to consider her personality, or try to understand who she is? No, he constantly daydreams about how beautiful she is and how much he wants her to love him. “Appreciate me with your eyes,” he thinks desperately of her (page 215).
Despite the fact that Barnes claims he loves Patrice, it seems like he merely wants to acquire her. He contemplates the ways he can change himself to appeal to her, he thinks of presents he could buy Pokey to impress her, he creeps around trying to steal glances of her—all so that he can claim her, the Indian beauty!
This is a common male-pursuing-trophy-female theme, but also I think perhaps a commentary on how white people sometimes just have misguided (and narcissistic) intentions. “I see, I want, I get. Go me!” The aim is often to gain and conquer, not to understand or compromise. Barnes thinks he might gain honorary access to the Turtle Mountain band by marrying Patrice, but Barnes will never face the discrimination that the Chippewa do. Having had the privilege and luxuries of white freedom, he has no idea what it’s like to be scorned for the makeup of his very being. And Thomas’s point is that you can’t pick and choose what parts of being an Indian you like; you don’t get to customize your own cultural smorgasbord experience, selecting only the most convenient and exciting bits and never really having to think deeper than aesthetic. (That’s what cultural appropriation is.)
There are many other moments like this throughout the novel, moments that point at something bigger. I expected nothing less; it’s difficult to write a vivid historical fiction piece about Native Americans without including a certain amount of political or racial commentary about how white colonizers drastically altered their history in almost all cases, for the worse.
This is why it’s important to read literature from different perspectives. We shouldn’t feel senselessly guilty or angry, but listen to one another. We should read The Night Watchman and try to understand those who are different from us, and then open our hearts to these people. We should act with love and solidarity, making compromises when necessary, and living in a way that makes this world better for everybody, not just ourselves. In these turbulent times, we mustn’t forget our empathy.
The Verdict: I’m a critical reader but also a heartfelt sap, so I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. (Typical me.) I loved the writing, the characters, and the plot, and even where it fell short, it didn’t even matter to me at the end of the day because I just really enjoyed this story. I don’t typically reread books, but I would reread this one! And I shall definitely be reading more by Erdrich soon.
You can also watch me review this on my YouTube channel!
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Next month’s book review is about In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware! Order a copy and read along, and the last Friday of June my book review will be published! For a full list of Slanted Spine’s 2020 Books, check out the main post.