Camp ToB 2020

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Week Five: The Night Watchman

It’s a new month and a new book matchup at Camp ToB. This week we’re discussing the first half of Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.

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Andrew Womack: Hello everyone, and welcome back to camp! This week begins our second month of Camp ToB 2020, and we’ll get started by announcing that, based on your votes between our two June reads, Sharks in the Time of Saviors has won a slot in our end-of-summer finale (the phrasing of which is reminding me more and more of the Dirty Dancing talent show).

To kick off July, this week we’re discussing the first half of Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, a work of historical fiction set in 1953 at the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, where we’re introduced to our pair of protagonists, Thomas Wazhashk and Patrice Paranteau.

Patrice works at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, and has gone to Minneapolis in search of her sister Vera, who’s (suspiciously, worryingly) fallen out of contact with the family. And Thomas—our titular night watchman at the jewel plant—is a member of the Chippewa Council, which is grappling with the implications of US Sen. Arthur V. Watkins’s new Congressional bill, House Concurrent Resolution 108, which began the termination of federal aid and protection for Native Americans, as well as the end of tribal sovereignty and reservations.

Now here to walk us through the first half of The Night Watchman is Activity Leader Basia Kapolka. Hello, Basia—please introduce yourself to camp!

Basia Kapolka: Hi Andrew! I live in Chicago, which I’d like to acknowledge is part of the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations. I oversee circulation at a library here, and right now with the building closed due to COVID-19 I’m managing book pickup. It’s an exhausting day to day, but my team is great and I get a vicarious thrill from seeing people pick up their book bundles.

Andrew: I can only imagine. Our libraries here in Austin are currently closed to the public. We miss them dearly, and are so thankful that curbside just opened up. Kudos to the good work you all do. Tell me, what is it you look for in a book?

Basia: Books have always been one of my great pleasures. I read a variety of topics and genres, though I read much more fiction than nonfiction, and more novels than anything else. The number-one thing I’m looking for when I read is a chance to live someone else’s life alongside them. I want that intimacy of detail, the inner thoughts, the quality of air, the taste of the food, and the confusing feelings. I like a good story, too, but if I don’t get that ridealong feeling with the character I’m not as invested.

Andrew: And how is The Night Watchman delivering on that?

Basia: I’m finding it really rich and satisfying so far. It definitely has the quality of detail that I live for. The descriptions are so vivid; I feel like I could walk right into the scenes. And I really get a sense of how the characters, especially Thomas and Patrice, inhabit their lives, from the way Erdrich describes the way they sit, work, and walk.

Both Thomas and Patrice are so appealing, as people. Patrice with her grit and being so clever and strong. Thomas with his patience and heart. There’s one passage where Erdrich describes Thomas holding the lid of his thermos, filled with coffee, and it is this quiet moment that encapsulates the character so well. Later on, when he is in Fargo dealing with the termination bill and finally losing his patience you feel how significant that moment is for him because you know him so well, feel how hard it must be to unsteady that state of calm.

Andrew: I agree. There’s such depth to the writing; this really is a beautifully rendered book. Anything else?

Basia: I like the construction of the book too, and it’s been a fun read. Patrice’s city adventure enlivens and balances out Thomas’s slower political struggle. I love the parallel conflicts—the search for Vera, who has disappeared into the Twin Cities, and the fight against the termination bill that aims to make all the Native Americans disappear by assimilating them and taking away their land and rights. The further we get into the book, the more clear it is how dangerous the situations are. And we’re left with the image of Vera in the room with the chain and the dog collar and the dirty blanket, which is chilling. But also Thomas has a vision and revelation of sorts and rises up a hero, and I can’t wait to find out what he will do next.

Andrew: “Chilling” is the perfect way to describe that moment. So much is left to our imaginations in that scene. It’s an awful moment that ratchets up the overall tension in The Night Watchman so far.

I do want to go back a bit and pick up on the book’s careful descriptions, and specifically the waterjack costume. I feel like it’s a needed moment of comic relief? This blue ox wetsuit that Jack—the owner of a lumberjack-themed nightclub where Patrice gets a job in Minneapolis—gives her to wear for a show in a giant water tank. It seemed like Erdrich was having fun with those descriptions of the costume—e.g., “a blue rubber wetsuit with white hooves painted at the ends of the hands and feet.” But again, there’s this tension, so the suit is also sinister. What’s your take on it all?

Basia: Yes! That storyline is so entertaining, and I think you’re right: Erdrich is definitely having fun with it—the vivid blue rubber, the little cap with horns, the targets over the breasts. And then Jack’s description of the waterjack moves—including the innovative “Tush wag” and “Ox writhe” along with your classic “Bubbles” and “Kisses”—and the way he looks into Patrice’s eyes and says, “You are the waterjack.” It’s almost a superhero origin story. When Patrice puts on the suit it’s as if she’s putting on armor. But it’s so absurd! And, yes, sinister.

Andrew: And Jack’s obsession with it?

Basia: Jack is so reverential toward the custom-made rubber suit, speaks softly in front of it, and is proud of how innovative it is. There’s something suspicious about that. And later you find out the suit is more valuable to him than the performers who wear it. Which is not surprising but is chilling. I also think it’s brilliant to have this exploitative business be hidden behind the Paul Bunyan theme. Bunyan on the one hand is a kitschy bit of folklore, but on the other he represents industry and the white man. And then you have this Native American woman playing his sidekick the ox—in a poisonous suit.


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

It is 1953, and Thomas Wazhashk and the other Chippewa Council members at the Turtle Mountain Reservation are facing a new Congressional bill that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. Also living in this impoverished reservation community is Patrice Paranteau, whose beloved older sister, Vera, moved to the big city of Minneapolis, hasn't been in touch, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Andrew: This is a really good point about Bunyan—I hadn’t picked up on that. I think I was just feeling this seems like a tangent, but now that you say it, it’s really part of the bigger theme, which is totally eye-opening. The larger point of the bill and all the history here—and now this—I feel like I’m learning a whole side of American history I never really knew. What about you?

Basia: I appreciate any book that makes me aware of gaps in my knowledge. I have so many, and like many Americans—like Barnes [a white teacher at the reservation —ed.]—one of them is having a poor grasp of the many injustices faced by Native Americans. Erdrich starts with a statement telling the reader which parts are true and which are made up, which is a clear invitation to me to read up on the history of tribal sovereignty and land rights. I won’t get into it here since the book is its own introduction and readers can do their own research, but I do think that’s another valuable thing we get from novels, and not something we should take lightly. I don’t agree that reading is a shortcut to empathy, but I do think that it can help make you more aware of what you don’t know.

Andrew: Where we’re at in the book, I do feel like a lot is riding on the second half. The tribe intends to fight the bill threatening their rights. We don’t know yet what’s happened to Vera, but the clues we’ve been given so far say it’s nothing good. The first half is tense! And I really don’t know what to expect next. What are you most anticipating in the home stretch?

Basia: We left our characters right on the eve of battle! Is Thomas going to go head to head with Arthur V. Watkins? Or with the criminal element in Minneapolis?

Andrew: Right? It’s right here at the halfway point in the book where it looks like Thomas and Patrice’s storylines are converging—I mean, we’ll see—but it seems that way.

Basia: Yeah, definitely. And it’s Vera’s story that makes Thomas realize he’s never going to win by following the white man’s rules. Up until this point the book’s enemies have been abstract. There’s the head of the underworld, but we haven’t seen him face to face. And the other enemy is this bill, “a collection of tedious words,” possibly embodied by Watkins but actually more unwieldy and with a longer lifespan than one senator. How can they come up with a winning strategy when they don’t know what they’re fighting? But the moment where Zhaanat and Patrice bring Thomas the visceral truth of Vera’s suffering becomes this coalescence, this strengthening. And it’s important that this strength and knowledge comes from their indigenous heritage. Thomas finally sets aside his boarding school training. Patrice puts her trust in Zhaanat’s unusual intelligence. I have a sense they’re both more powerful now than they’ve ever been before.

Andrew: You mention the bill, and to go more in depth there, I think this is a huge point we haven’t covered yet. We’ve talked a lot about the narrative in this first half, but this bill is looming in the background, and it surely must play a big part in the second half. And something I’ve been struggling with so far in this book has been that to me it feels stuck in time. I hate to say it, but I felt it was dated, and I wasn’t getting hooked in. While I was reading the first half I saw the video of Kimberly Jones from the Minneapolis protests in late May:

What Jones says there made the meaning of this book more real for me, when in the video she says they don’t own anything, and that there is a social contract, and it hasn’t been honored. When I heard that, the cascade effect of the bill locked so much more into place for me, in that here we are seeing how white America has slowly but very surely eroded that contract, and that the same malice has always been at work.

Basia: They don’t own anything, and like Thomas explains to Barnes, they don’t get to speak their own language, follow their own customs, or use their own land! It’s a totally rigged system, and it’s infuriating. I’m not sure you can say that a contract was ever made in good faith, but this bill is a total abdication of any responsibility. Basically they’re saying “OK, time to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, good luck”—exactly as Jones describes in the video.

In a way I felt primed for this book because I had listened to the podcast This Land earlier in the year and been blown away by it. That was my introduction to the Native rights cases that are still very much active in the courts. Even though the Turtle Mountain fight with Watkins is historically resolved, the Native fight with the US government is far from over.

Andrew: —see, for example, the conflict happening right now over the Dakota Access Pipeline—

Basia: There’s a conversation between Thomas and his father that I found really moving and that directly addresses the idea of the broken contract.

“It was their promise to exchange these things for our land. Long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.”

“I still see grass. I hear the rivers are running.”

“And they are still using the land,” said Biboon.

“Still using the hell out of it,” said Thomas. “But trying to pretend they didn’t sign a  contract to pay the rent.”

Andrew: Very well put. Thank you, Basia.


The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar


The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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