Louise Erdrich has a new novel, "The Night Watchman."

Louise Erdrich has a new novel, "The Night Watchman." Credit: Hilary Abe

THE NIGHT WATCHMAN by Louise Erdrich (Harper, 448 pp., $28.99).

Louise Erdrich’s full-bodied new novel depicts the real-life battle of her grandfather (fictionalized and renamed Thomas Wazhushk) against the 1953 congressional resolution calling for the immediate disbanding of his tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the eventual “termination” of all Native American tribes. The resistance he organizes against a government determined to uproot them from their culture and history drives the main action in “The Night Watchman,” but Thomas is surrounded by a large cast of characters delineated with Erdrich’s customary vibrancy and wit. 

The Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota is an impoverished community with few available jobs outside the nearby jewel-bearing plant where Thomas is night watchman. Patrice Paranteau is among the plant’s largely female, poorly paid work force; her family is typical in having neither a car nor a phone. Patrice’s sister, Vera, was among those who took the government’s promise of job training and support for anyone willing to move off the reservation, but now she and her baby have vanished in Minneapolis, and Patrice’s efforts to track her down scarily demonstrate just how badly things can go wrong for an Indian adrift in a big city.

Thomas and Patrice stand at the center of a teeming plot that includes plenty of personal drama in addition to the ongoing battle against House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties. Wood Mountain, an up-and-coming boxer, competes for Patrice’s affections with white math teacher (and boxing coach) Barnes. But Barnes later takes up bemusedly with Patrice’s best friend, Valentine, and their white co-worker Doris. When Patrice comes back from Minneapolis without Vera but with her baby, Wood Mountain seems almost more interested in the infant. A University of Minnesota student enlisted as an expert on reservation conditions and a pair of Mormon missionaries add further complications. These entanglements prompt a good deal of deadpan humor, which has been providing relief for Erdrich’s characters and her readers back to her first novel, “Love Medicine,” in 1984.

Thomas and his allies need a sense of humor about the bitter ironies inherent in the tactics they adopt to enlist the politically vital support of their reservation’s white neighbors. Thomas sets before the local American Legion head “the prospect of Indians who had faithfully served their country abandoned to beg in the streets … off-reservation” — for example, in white towns. He politely hints that the local school system will be stuck funding the reservation school if federal subsidies are terminated. As to the rationale for those federal subsidies, remarks one man at a meeting with Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, “The services that the government provides to Indians might be likened to rent. The rent for use of the entire country.”

Grittily realistic about the problems faced by modern Indians, “The Night Watchman” is also steeped in ancient folkways that acknowledge no arbitrary division between the physical and spirit worlds. Thomas matter-of-factly takes counsel from the ghost of his dead brother, Roderick; Patrice and her mother, Zhaanat, accept that their identical dreams about the missing Vera mean “she is trying to reach us.”

In Erdrich’s holistic view, twining comic portraits of personal confusions around a fierce tale of political activism is not contradictory. “The Night Watchman” embraces the multifaceted nature of human experience and adds a valuable new chapter to this fine writer’s career-long project: tracing in richly individual details the complex variety of Native American lives while also paying tribute the web of relationships and traditions that sustain them as a collective.

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