Louise Erdrich is one of the most admired American authors and arguably the Queen of Native American Literature. I was awed back in 1984 by her debut novel, LOVE MEDICINE. It was my introduction to a novel in stories, without a central plot. Over the years, I’ve read a few of her other novels, and as good as they were, none of them made the same impression on me. Nothing like the first kiss, as they say.
This year I picked up her 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, THE NIGHT WATCHMEN. I’d heard great things. Its main storyline is a North Dakota community’s efforts to prevent the proposed displacement and elimination of several Native American tribes in the 1950s, which would have violated treaties the United States signed with Native Americans.
Thomas Wazhashk, a character based on Erdrich’s maternal grandfather, is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant and a Chippewa Council member leading the fight against the “emancipation” bill in Congress, which is more like an elimination bill. The plight of his people, the mistreatment–it’s all on devastating display. Thomas drums up support and heads to Washington to plead his case.
The major subplot concerns his niece, Patrice, who also works at the plant. She heads to Minneapolis to search for her missing sister, Vera, and Vera’s baby, and she ends up working a strange job in a bar. She finds Vera’s baby, but not Vera, then goes back home where she is courted by Wood Mountain, a boxer and fellow Chippewa. Young love and sexual tension ensue.
The key questions in the novel are whether Thomas will succeed in protecting his tribe, who Patrice will couple with, and whether Vera will ever be found. It’s a pretty good mix of plot and character, with the requisite Native American spirits and ghosts thrown in, but somehow the novel manages to be interesting, rich, imaginative, and structurally clever, without ever being compelling. There were many minor characters who weren’t fully developed but kept popping up and were hard to keep track of. The pace was slow, then fast, then middling. The denouement was rushed. But the writing itself, the use of language, was always strong.
Worthy of Pulitzer Prize? Who even knows anymore. Erdrich is an accomplished, impressive writer and a master of her Native American genre, and definitely worth reading.