“You can’t assimilate Indian ghosts. It’s too late!”

Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, January 19 at noon to discuss The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, a literary, atmospheric, dramatic, heart-wrenching, and engaging historical fiction novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021. It is only one book in her large canon of novels, poetry, and children’s books featuring Native American characters and settings. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe. She is also of German descent, which she pays homage to in her 2003 novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club

This book was written as a tribute to Erdrich’s grandfather, who, as tribal chairman and a night watchman by trade, did an amazing thing: took on the United States Congress in the hopes of protecting Native American treaty rights threatened by the “emancipation”/“termination” bill introduced in 1953 which would threaten Native rights to their land and their identity. In the beginning of the novel, there is an abundance of characters, and the slow, melodic describing of everyday activities in the reservation, featuring both lyricism and ghostly mysticism. The chapters are short, there’s plenty of white space, and enough repetition to ease the reader into the setting. When the book descends into the main struggle of trying to change the forthcoming act of Congress, the stakes heighten and the plot tightens.

One reader described cheering the characters on throughout the book, admiring the organization, will, and sharpness of their minds; but, interestingly, there was some disagreement about if the characters were deep enough, if Erdrich had shown us the “truth” of them. At almost 500 pages, some said that the book could have been shorter. What did you think about the characters and the length of the novel? 

We talked about the animals featured throughout the book: for example, the owl, dog, and muskrat, and if we felt the hints of magical realism removed us from the history at all. Most said no, viewing the animal presence as another authentic cultural learning opportunity, similar to how the book introduces us to foods that characters ate that we might be unfamiliar with (like pemmican eaten on the train), items that set the scene such as cradleboard, and the importance of boxing as a cultural phenomenon in the reservation. 

We finished our discussion by talking about what we think will happen to Patrice after the book ends. Everyone painted a happy, rosy picture for her, which is amazing and hopeful, given the brutal, disturbing, and violent life that her sister Vera was living within the timeline of the novel. Maybe it is our modern book club comfort that imagines comfort for others, or Patrice herself, created to be so likable and capable, or something else entirely. In any case, the book closed on a hopeful note, perhaps even a happy ending. 

To learn about Louise Erdrich’s “teaching bookstore” that celebrates and uplifts Native creators, Birchbark Books, click here. For exciting news on how our local free community art museum, The Fralin, is able to be a more superior steward of Native arts and artifacts thanks to a new grant, click here. To find out more about Brown Baggers book club, email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org

Other books mentioned:

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann  

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger 

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by MIchael Dorris  

The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter 

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne 

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