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Tribal and personal history converge in Louise Erdrich’s ‘Night Watchman’

  • Louise Erdrich in her bookstore.

  • Patrick Gourneau, Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, is the person on whom the main character of Erdrich’s new novel, “The Night Watchman,” is based on.

  • Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. (Hilary Abe photograph)

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Published: 3/5/2020 5:08:04 PM
Modified: 3/5/2020 5:07:54 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — Toward the end of Louise Erdrich’s new novel, a character named Thomas Wazhashk heads to Washington, D.C., to testify against a bill. If it passes, its policies would eliminate all federal services to Indians, move families off their reservations and almost certainly destroy the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

And yet before heading home, Thomas stops at the office of the bill’s author to thank him for listening to his testimony. The senator is stunned. Nobody has ever done this before.

“This really happened,” Erdrich said. “My grandfather” — Aunishenaubay Patrick Gourneau, on whom the character of Thomas is closely based — “was the most kind person. He had the sort of quality that you don’t really run into in politics very often, that sort of gentility. And he had incredibly good manners.”

The Night Watchman is set in Turtle Mountain in the 1950s, a time when the U.S. government planned to “emancipate” Indians, band by band and tribe by tribe, from their Indianness. Terminate their protected status guaranteed in treaties, end their government health care and education, abolish tribes, relocate them from reservations to cities, stop any kind of aid or payments for taking their land.

Two dozen of the 113 tribes this happened to became extinct, Erdrich said. The Turtle Mountain Band, thanks to the efforts of her grandfather and others, did not.

Those good manners, that gentility, Erdrich said, “I think really won the day for them.”

Bookstore as art installation

Erdrich tells this story from a comfortable easy chair in the downstairs of her shop, Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis. Outside, it is 5 degrees; inside, a cozy electric fire glows at her side as she sips Earl Grey tea.

She wears a thick woolen scarf and sturdy black boots. A person could do just about anything in those boots. (“Aren’t they great?” she said, holding out one foot. “They’re my favorite thing.”)

A few feet away, dozens of cardboard cartons labeled “signed” are stacked neatly against the wall, and hundreds more copies of The Night Watchman await her signature, slotted onto tall shelves and stacked on a table. On the walls hang paintings by Frank Big Bear, Dyani White Hawk and other Native artists.

Erdrich is not an absent landlord; this store, which she has owned since 2001, is a big part of her life. The basement is where she is launching a new online shop to sell Native art.

“We’ve always had family working at the bookstore. My daughters have all worked there, my nephews and nieces worked there, and young Native people, young people have always worked there,” she said.

She considers Birchbark Books her biggest work of art. “You put emotion and dedication and love and money into art, and this is my art.”

The problem of real people

Erdrich, 65, grew up knowing that her grandfather had been involved in preventing termination, but for a long time she didn’t have a strong understanding of what that meant.

Then Patrick Gourneau was inducted posthumously into the North Dakota Native American Hall of Honor, and she began to realize more fully the role he had played in saving the band. “I thought, this is extraordinary,” she said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what he had done.”

For years, she had read and reread her grandfather’s beautiful letters — handwritten to her parents in elegant boarding school script, packed with news and stories and laced with great humor. But after the Hall of Honor ceremony in 2018, she put the letters in chronological order against the timeline of the termination attempt, and suddenly the magnitude of what the government had planned to do, and what her grandfather had done to stop them, became clear.

Erdrich had been struggling to write another novel, reaching a stage where she was pretty sure that she had no more books in her. But as she looked at her grandfather’s letters, “All of a sudden it was: Ah, I’d been working on this book all along.”

Brenda J. Child, a historian for the University of Minnesota and a Red Lake Ojibwe, said she was thrilled that Erdrich was writing about the termination era. “She has such a wonderful sense of history in her work,” Child said. “She makes termination into a wonderful, human story so you can see what stakes Native people had — what they were trying to protect.”

Even more remarkable, Child said, is the family connection to the history. “Her grandfather was a fantastic letter writer. ... To have family documentation of these experiences is quite a rare thing.”

Still, writing about real people — let alone a beloved family member — was difficult, Erdrich said. While the character of Thomas is based on her grandfather (a factory watchman himself), he is not her grandfather. “I tried as much as possible to fictionalize him. It’s a hard edge for me to stand on, having a real person that I was basing a character on. I never do that if I can help it.”

Several other real people, including Arthur V. Watkins, the Utah senator behind the termination bills, appear in the book, though briefly.

“I don’t know how people write about real people,” Erdrich said. “If you can’t find a direct quote of them saying what you want them to say, how do you put words in their mouth?”

Almost all of Watkins’ quotes in her novel are verbatim, taken from the Congressional Record. And lest this make the book sound dry or scholarly, take a look at page 397 where Erdrich announces the upcoming congressional hearing. In addition to Thomas, she writes, speakers will include “a ghost, a PhD candidate, and a stenographer.”

Fact plus fiction plus magic

As in previous Erdrich books, the past and the present, the dead and the living all swim together. Early in the novel, as Thomas tries not to fall asleep on his overnight watch, he sees what appears to be a young boy sitting on top of a band saw.

This detail came from one of her grandfather’s letters. Gourneau worked all night at the factory, and he worked all day on tribal business. He slept, Erdrich said, only about 12 hours a week.

In one letter, “He says that he got very exhausted one night and his head dropped and he dropped his sandwich on the floor and he thought he saw a little boy. That’s how exhausted he was,” she said. “And I kept going with the little boy. Imagined who he was.” He became a character, the ghost of a child she named Roderick who follows Thomas to Washington.

For years, Erdrich has researched Native history, driving down to Kansas City, Mo., in the summers with Brenda Child to pore through tribal documents at the National Archives there.

“I love doing research,” Erdrich said. “It’s my candy, it really is. I feel guilty because I’m not actually writing, I’m just taking notes.”

Those archives produced a wealth of material, including her grandfather’s boarding school files and dozens of his letters.

For scenes in The Night Watchman set in 1950s Minneapolis, Erdrich worked at the Minnesota Historical Society, reading about flophouses and dive bars and a guy known as the King of Skid Row.

It was all fascinating, “like a fever dream,” she said. “I thought, this could take over.” But it didn’t. She chased down obscure bits of information such as the chemicals used in mimeograph copy fluid, and the kind of gun Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron fired into the air at the U.S. Capitol in 1954. Candy or not, it wasn’t empty calories; it all ended up in the book.

The Night Watchman is a blend of truth and fiction, real people and real events matched up with make-believe. The boxing match that Thomas organizes to raise money for the trip to Washington? True. The creepy Minneapolis bar where Pixie Paranteau gets a job playing a coy Babe the Blue Ox frolicking in a tank of water? Based on truth, but different. The Babe the Blue Ox suit that Pixie wore, made of specialized rubber that came all the way from Chicago?

Fully a product of Erdrich’s rich imagination.

Erdrich out loud

Erdrich’s prodigious black boots are front and center in a photograph posted recently on the HarperAudio Facebook page. It was taken at Babble-On Recording Studios near Lake Nokomis while she was recording the audiobook version of The Night Watchman.

“I love the studio,” she said. “It’s so great to see Andre and Carol (Bergeron) and my sandwich when I come there every day.”

Her sandwich? “They always get me a sandwich, my ‘safety sandwich,’ in case my stomach gets really hungry. It can really mess up your audio! So the sandwich is always sitting right there when I arrive.”

Erdrich has recorded many of her books and plans to record those that she missed when her children were young and time was short, including Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and the Birchbark House series for children.

“I’ve always listened to audiobooks because I drive back and forth to North Dakota,” she said. “And I love it when the writer reads. It’s just transporting. So I want to give that experience to other people.”

There is always the possibility, though, when reading her own work out loud, that she might hear something she wants to change. A word here, a word there.

“Yes. That’s really a problem,” she said. She makes a note, and sometimes makes the change in the audiobook, sometimes waits for the paperback edition. “I can’t do big changes, but just little things.”

Politics and love

There is no denying that The Night Watchman — a book about Indian rights and congressional malfeasance and the enormous, tragic problem of missing Native women — is political. Like Erdrich’s Justice Trilogy (The Plague of Doves, The Round House, LaRose), this book educates as it entertains, and it has a point of view.

“I didn’t think my work was political for a long time,” she said. “And then at some point I realized that every choice you make in a book is political.”

In the case of her new book, “Those tribal leaders were very decent people,” she said, her voice growing firmer with every word. “They had done everything according to what the government said — you go to our boarding schools, you get our education, you farm the way we farm, you respect the flag, you send your people to die in our wars, you do everything that we tell you to do and we’ll take your land anyway. We will take your land anyway. And we will destroy you.”

But there’s another theme to The Night Watchman, one that lightens the darkness — the theme of love and community. The way Thomas looks out for the community, the way Pixie looks out for her missing sister, the way the young boxer named Wood Mountain looks out for Pixie, the way animals (a bear, an owl, a muskrat) are woven into the lives of the humans.

“I think it’s because of my family,” Erdrich said. “My family is extraordinary. There’s an enormous amount of trust that we will look out for one another.”

This goes back for generations, she said. “There’s something to be said for having parents who are just trying their best to be good, and then it spreads.”




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