Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Source of book: I own this. 

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This one was nominated by my wife, and, like her suggestions tend to be, a fascinating book. I was not familiar with the author, but my kids have read her children’s books. 

The Night Watchman is almost two books in one. There are several concurrent plots tied together by the characters. The one main plot is historical: the story of how the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa defeated the congressional attempt to terminate the tribe’s status and evict them from their lands. Erdrich has very slightly fictionalized her own grandfather Patrick Gourneau in this book, renaming him Thomas Wazhashk, and adding details to his daily life. The core elements of this plot, however, and the main outline of Gourneau’s life, remain intact. As a lawyer, I enjoyed this part of the book most - it is fascinating and infuriating and really brings to light how white America has and continues to take what little Native Americans have left. 

The second main plot and the various subplots revolve around Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau and her family. She may or may not be a stand-in for the author. (The introduction says she is fictional, but in such a tongue in cheek way that it seems to be a wink and a nod.) The daughter of a drunken abusive  (but thankfully often absent) father and a mother with deformed hands, she is the sole breadwinner for her family. Her sister has moved to Minneapolis, but has disappeared, and Patrice travels to try to find her. Meanwhile, she is being pursued by two men. One is Wood Mountain, a young boxer. The other is “Hay Stack” Barnes, the white math and PE teacher at the high school, who has fallen in love with her. 

Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band. While she did not grow up on the reservation, family members did, and she had access to the many stories that have been the subjects of her books. 

As usual, we had a fascinating book club discussion. A few of us have spent time on reservations, and have seen first hand the neglect and dismissal of native peoples. We have also seen the way that women hold things together, the hard work scraping together a living on the “waste” land that whites didn’t want, and the close extended family networks that are enviable. 

The book itself had some really great parts. The characters are memorable and mostly likeable. Even Patrice’s violent father is human - he was a promising athlete who went off the rails, unfortunately. Thomas is wonderful - he’s the guy I would have wanted to hang out with, just to listen to his stories. Even the minor characters are well drawn, which isn’t always the case in fiction. 

As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the legal/political fight that is the center of the book. The other plots had their moments. My one quibble is that the love triangle lacked real chemistry - Patrice’s heart is never really involved, so it is hard to care whether or not she gets with either or both guys. And that is despite the fact that they both are good, decent people who care about her. 

Erdrich does an excellent job of accurately portraying the social and legal dynamics as well. I care about the legal side, of course, but also about the social assumptions that allowed certain white families to become wealthy as land was “appropriated” from the Native Americans and sold off. Likewise, I loved that Thomas realized that in order to win his fight against tribal termination, he needed to use whatever weapons he could - and that included getting local authorities on his side by pointing out that they would then have to deal with all the displaced tribal members who lacked jobs, housing, and food. Politics is messy, to say the least. 

Speaking of politics, there is a really fantastic line, delivered by Eddy Mink, who is impossible when drunk, but brilliant and witty when sober. 


“Listen up. Government is more like sex than people think. When you are having good sex, you don’t appreciate it enough. When you are having bad sex, it is all you can think about.” 

We are getting a bit of an object lesson in that right now, with what is essentially a leadership vacuum at the top when we most need concerted collective action to battle a pandemic. 

Also perceptive is the realization that Thomas has when he discovers the main proponent of tribal termination is Mormon. It is beyond challenging to deal with those who do evil in the name of good. That’s why theocracy is the worst possible form of government, as C. S. Lewis noted. Thomas is shrewd, though, and comes to a conclusion. 


He definitely was a righteous fellow. How do you fight one of those? 

The only way to fight the righteous was to present an argument that would make giving him what he wanted seem the only righteous thing to do.

Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins was a real person, and not fictionalized for the book. He was Mormon, and his desire to terminate the tribes was based on his religion. Here is the actual quote from him:


“The more I go into this Indian problem the more I am convinced that we have made some terrible mistakes in the past. It seems to me that the time has come for us to correct some of these mistakes and help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied they would become. Of course, I realize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be the motivating factor, but it is difficult to teach the Gospel when they don't understand the English language and have had no training in caring for themselves. The Gospel should be a great stimulus and I am longing and praying for the time when the Indians will accept it in overwhelming numbers.”

I am sure Watkins felt all righteous in saying that. He got his little orgasm of self-righteousness like other modern “christians” do when calling for the abuse and oppression of other groups. I call it spiritual masturbation. 

But let’s unpack that a bit. “The Indians need to become white.” “They need to convert to our religion.” “They need to speak our language instead.” That’s...something we call Cultural Genocide. (White people like to call it “assimilation” - which is something the Borg do.) Of course, white christians would absolutely freak out if they were told they needed to speak Arabic, pray to Allah, and adopt Middle Eastern culture. It only goes one way. And, sadly, it is indeed the religion that drives this genocidal tendency. 

Lest you think that Watkins was a cookie cutter villain, Erdrich is careful to point out in the epilogue that Watkins was more complicated than that. He was horrible on Native American policy, obviously. But he voted for the first Civil Rights Act in 1957, directly opposing Strom Thurmond’s epic filibuster. (He was no longer in office by the mid-1960s, but probably would have voted for the later acts as well.) He supported legislation that opened borders to refugees. And, he was the chair (and namesake) of the Senate committee that finally took on Joseph McCarthy and stripped him of his powers. So, that’s three things in his favor. While there are some pure villains in our history, a lot of people are, like Watkins, complicated. 

I do want to mention one other scene that stood out and got a lot of discussion in our group. Patrice, like many Native Americans of her generation, grew up on a weird borderline between traditional beliefs and Catholic dogma. (Thanks to French and Spanish conquest.) Because of this, Patrice has some serious gaps in her knowledge about sexuality. She knows the mechanics, obviously, because she is around animals - a friend’s family breeds horses. But there are also a lot of things she isn’t told. So she consults Betty, a coworker at the factory, who has had sex and has some good knowledge of things like orgasms and the like. 

(Side note here: while I received generally excellent sex education from my parents compared to most people I knew, there were gaps. I had to research for myself how female orgasms worked, including the existence of the clitoris. Not that public schoolers of my generation learned any better. In fact, the whole national freakout about female sexuality, dating back 1500 years to Augustine, has so tainted how Americans think and talk about sex and contraception and pleasure that a shocking number of men have no idea what the hell they are doing in bed. Things are perhaps getting better, but a disturbing number of women still say they cannot count on having an orgasm every time they have sex. And that is mostly on men being incompetent lovers.) 

Anyway, the exchange between them is interesting, and enlightening. 


“All the same, sounds like you could try with either guy. The only thing is getting rid of them after, if you don’t like it.”

Patrice looked completely mystified.

“I know. It’s supposed to be you only do the deed if you are planning on forever. Getting married. But my aunt told me that if you are serious try it out first. It’s no good to have to do it with one person all your life if it isn’t any good. This is what my aunt said. Why be stuck with a dud?” 


There is more, of course. Before sex ed was readily available, it was by word of mouth. So Patrice and Betty talk about contraception (pre pill, in this case), oral sex, and pregnancy. 

Going back to the quote, though, this is a rather important point. Our concept of “virginity” has always been about controlling female sexuality. Making sure a man doesn’t have to raise a child that isn’t “his.” Going along with this prioritization of male concerns is a disregard of female sexual needs. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the way that Augustine and subsequent theologians considered pleasure in sex to be sinful, thus nearly guaranteeing that female satisfaction would be frowned upon. But the whole “wait until you are married” advice seems to me to be particularly risky for women. After all, a man must ejaculate in order to procreate. So, even if his wife isn’t particularly good in bed, he at least gets an orgasm, right? But a woman could literally get married and discover that her husband has zero interest in her pleasure or commitment to make it happen. 

As a divorce attorney, I can testify that this is absolutely a factor in many divorces, particularly the brutally ugly “christian” ones. 

Sexual compatibility is a thing. And many men have been raised with toxic beliefs about gender and sexuality. This isn’t limited to religious men, to be sure, but they are not exempt. I believe a woman would be foolish to assume that her needs will be met and that her husband will be compatible with her. As foolish as couples who wait until after marriage to discuss financial expectations. (And money is far and away the biggest cause of divorce. Which is why it irritates me that christian parents care more about whether their sons marry a virgin than whether they marry a spendthrift.) I’m not saying that everyone’s courtship should be a certain way. But jumping in without extended discussion at minimum is not advisable. 

I should also mention that Patrice finds herself vulnerable to rapists and sex traffickers in part because of her ignorance of sexual dynamics. She escapes both, fortunately, but by the skin of her teeth. In both cases, she probably would have been better served by better education. And perhaps experience as well. Those who have experienced loving, egalitarian sexuality are less likely to think that inconsiderate, patriarchal, or even abusive sex is okay or the normal thing. 

Okay, enough of my soapbox on this. I enjoyed this book, and want to read more by the author. I am happy that our club has read a number of books by female and minority authors this year. We are a diverse book club, and it has been so good to hear the different perspectives, both from the books and from our members. Covid has put a damper on our social lives, so I look forward so much to our monthly Zoom meeting. 


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