Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Towards the end of this book, rather symbolically, a fragile and joyous hope emerges. This takes the form of two of the characters drinking the sap of the birch tree. The first people of the U.S. believed that, in Spring, the rising sap from these trees in the woods, gave them renewed zest and energy to face the life that lay ahead. This powerful image underlines the need for the people in the nightwatchman’s world to cling to their old ways while forging a pathway in the America of today.
The scope of The Nightwatchman is as wide as the many fine aspects of the novel. Thomas, the nightwatchman, works in the first factory the Indian community established in the Turtle Mountain area of North Dakota.
His story is a tribute to Louise Erdrich’s grandfather. He, like Thomas, was the leader of the group which presented its petition and response to the Government in Washington in 1953/4. Their farmlands were under threat, and their rights eroded, their very way of life under threat. Although Native Americans were given the vote in 1924, this was indeed a farce as those living in Reservations with no street address were unable to exercise their right!
The pilgrimage to the Capital is the dominant theme of the novel, but it is far richer than that. There are characters who come alive under the beautifully observed descriptions of their lives in the close-knit community.
Pixie, wanting to be called Patrice, is a lively, strong willed and courageous girl who has bewitched both Barnes, a teacher, and Wood Mountain, a big- hearted gentle man. She sets out to find her only sister, Vera, who has disappeared in the city, Minneapolis.
Both the seasons and their lives are hard. Winter temperatures drop to minus 40degs. The community is desperately poor but works hard. To make life bearable, they organise events to raise spirits. There are boxing matches and the Homecoming Parade.
They are kind, generous and devoted to family. Eking out their existence by growing their food, the women cook and convert humble ingredients which are relished with such gusto that it might have been haute cuisine. At times, the reader can have hunger pains, after descriptions of simple but, it seems, delicious food!
Patrice’s venturing into the City by train is tense. The sordid underbelly of society there combined with her naivety increases the suspense even further.
Her sister, Vera’s, baby is rescued from this scene. It is the heart-warming devotion of Wood Mountain who helps her make the journey back home, to the little baby that wins Patrice’s affection. Until this, she regarded the obvious attraction of both him and Barnes as a nuisance and was irritated by their attention.
Living as they do, in fragile housing with tar roofs, the seasons are ever present. The snow in Winter, Summer’s searing heat and winds tearing through their houses intrude on their comfort, unlike city dwellers.
Always the saga of their mid-western lives is brightened by their honesty, good humour and links that bind their community. There is cheerful resentment to Washington and its arbitrary ways. At one stage, Thomas says, “what they (meaning the White Washington lawmakers) give us is rent – for the land they took in 1492.”
Life in Turtle Mountain is lovingly told in lively detail. Louise Erdrich’s connection to her roots is obvious. She is a proud member of the Chippewa tribe and her knowledge appears in many ways. We learn how to successfully set rabbit traps in the snow. However, a favourite episode is when Patrice falls down a deep ditch in the snow. She is near a cave and her keen sense of smell tells her a bear is hibernating there.
Her family learns of the bear, and to her distress, it becomes a victim of the need to have fresh meat in the long cold winter.
The world of this small Indian community is so finely drawn, that a reader becomes part of it. The detail in her fine and often beautiful descriptions of Patrice’s search for Vera in the dangerous backstreets of Minneapolis, the boxing matches as well as the Homecoming parade and the daily lives of the key characters make the reading of this book totally absorbing.
Louise Erdrich has won many accolades for her writing. She is regarded universally as one of America’s finest authors. She is a voice for the first Americans; and its tone is admiring, loving and laced with a gentle humour.
Her books demand slow and careful reading, to savour the beauty of her writing and appreciate her marvellous story- telling.
by Louise Erdrich
ISBN 978 1 4721 5535 1.
443 pages; $32.99; eBook: $14.99