Acclaimed author Louise Erdrich is following in her grandfather’s footsteps. Literally. Erdrich’s newest novel, The Night Watchman, takes her grandfather Patrick Gourneau’s life as its inspiration.
Gourneau fought fiercely against an emancipation bill brought to Congress in 1953 that would terminate the rights of numerous Native American tribes. What began as a letter-writing campaign soon took Gourneau from North Dakota to Washington, DC to oppose the bill. Those letters served as the basis for The Night Watchman, in which Erdrich turns Gourneau into Thomas Wazhashk and sets him loose among a cast of characters whose way of life hangs in the balance. Reading Gourneau’s letters as an adult—and as someone older than he was at the time he wrote them—gave Erdrich a new vision of her grandfather, she says, adding, “Maybe I needed to get to this place in order to understand him.”
We caught up with Erdrich, a National Book Award recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist, by phone after one of her stops on her book tour: a reading in DC. The novelist, who is included among the most significant authors of Native American literature, says it was strange being there at the exact same time of the month that her grandfather was in the capital doing his life-changing work many years ago. “And here I am,” she says. “And here is this book.”
On Monday, Erdrich will read from The Night Watchman as she headlines the fifth evening of Inprint’s 2019-2020 Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. We talked to Erdrich about her newest book before she heads to Houston.
When you’re thinking about The Night Watchman alongside your other work, where does it fit? Or does it feel like a departure from what you’ve done before?
It does feel like a big departure. I didn’t connect it to any of the other books. But in a way, it may be where I needed to go. The fact that it is inspired by my grandfather—that it hews very closely to his letters, his truth, what he did, and the political aspects of it—it makes it feel very organic to the times we’re in now.
In your award-winning book Love Medicine, you wrote, “Here is what I do not understand: how instantly the course of your life can be changed.” Did you witness any of those moments as you read your grandfather’s letters?
Yes. I recognized that this fight for existence—it was an existential, true fight for the existence of his people that he was suddenly engulfed in. It was very sudden; it was only a matter of months. The timeline is so short between when he found out and understood, and when he had to go to Washington, with all the information and all of the arguments he could find and put together, and the people he could cobble together. It was a short, life-changing event. And for him, I think he lost his health. That was the most painful part of writing this book: to know what it was like for him during those times. He truly did have a stroke on one of his returns from Washington, and it was the beginning of several. Just to know how hard he worked, and how little he slept, and the tremendous amount of tension there was, it’s devastating. We all in our family know how much it cost.
You mention in your afterword that much of the book was written in a “heavy state of emotion” as you remembered the toll that this took on your family. How did you find a way to write through and capture those emotions?
I wrote the thing that he did, and that was a way of saying, “You did something so important.” People forgot quite quickly what had happened. I talked to many people who just don’t really think about termination, and people forgot his role in it, and people forgot a lot about it because it didn’t happen. People remember when the devastation happens much more clearly than when one is able to forestall devastation and it never happens. That’s kind of the unsung hero. And that’s what he was. And people didn’t remember because termination did not happen to them. Where termination did happen, in those tribes, those people were never to be the same. It would’ve been devastating for us. I would certainly not be here as a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa if he hadn’t stood up to Congress on this.
One of the things I admire about your writing is that you treat every character as worthy of interest and consideration, even when a character might not seem worthy of it at first glance. Where do you feel that impulse comes from?
I suppose it’s really from my parents. They treat everyone as if they’re worthy of interest, and they’re kind to people. They’re just good people. But as a writer, I feel as though I’m to tell people’s stories without judgment. And once you’re in that position of not having to judge, you can feel the characters kind of come toward you, with their stories and their flaws. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but it is what I feel to be true. I’m here not to judge, but to write the story.
Mar 9. Tickets $5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. More info and tickets at inprinthouston.org