Walking composition

Louise Erdrich's "The Night Watchman" and history's undeniable complexity

“If you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.” 
—Louise Erdrich

Last week I read Louise Erdrich’s newest novel The Night Watchman, which draws from the true story of her grandfather’s role in saving the Chippewa Turtle Mountain nation from becoming dispossessed in the 1950s. (“Emancipated” in the words of Congress, though in truth what was being emancipated was the U.S. government from its responsibilities to those whose land had been stolen.)

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse remains my favorite Erdrich novel, but The Night Watchman is running a very close second. There is so much to love about this book, first and foremost Erdrich’s writing, which is always indescribably good. But the history was also riveting, especially at a time when so many in the U.S. are fighting like hell to retain fantastical images some kind of golden age where everybody was happy no matter what their social status or lack of freedom. I didn’t know about the 1950s movement to terminate all reservations and dispossess Native citizens of what little land they’d already been limited to—which, as Erdrich says in an endnote, Congress succeeded in doing to over 100 nations, although her grandfather’s efforts managed to keep the Chippewa Turtle Mountain nation from becoming one of them.

The quote above isn’t from the novel; it’s from a kind of endnote from Erdrich, and a good lesson to walk with for a time, especially now.