Review 1592: The Night Watchman

There is always something that keeps my attention in Louise Erdrich’s books, although often they are very sad. In 1953, the United States Congress announced a program of “emancipation” of more than 100 First Nations tribes that was expressed as a program to put indigenous people on an equal footing with other Americans but was actually a way to yet again abrogate treaties and take land. Louise Erdrich’s grandfather helped save the Turtle Mountain Chippewa from this fate all while working full-time as a night watchman. The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s novel about this event.

Thomas Wazhashk, a member of the tribal council, receives a copy of the bill and figures out its intent from its bland, bureaucratic language. He gets the council to collect signatures on a petition and begins collecting information to support the tribe’s stance that its members are too poor to care for themselves so local authorities will have to take on the burden if the federal government doesn’t, this obviously a ploy to get support from state and local authorities to oppose the bill. While he works, he is visited by an owl and the ghost of an old friend who died as a boy after being imprisoned in the basement of a state boarding school.

As usual with Erdrich, aside from the main plot, the novel is full of interesting characters and subplots. Pixie Paranteau takes time off from work to try to find her sister Vera, who has vanished in Minneapolis after leaving to marry her boyfriend. On the train, she encounters Wood Mountain, a young boxer on his way to a fight, but when the fight is cancelled, he decides to make sure Pixie is all right.

Millie Cloud is the woman whom Thomas asks to share the results of the survey on the living conditions of the tribe that she wrote for her doctoral dissertation. She is socially awkward and dresses in geometric patterns.

This novels felt more hopeful than some of Erdrich’s even though it also contained scenes of brutality. My attention was engrossed by it.

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Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1011: Once in a Blue Moon Lodge

Cover for Once in a Blue Moon LodgeIn the present day, Nora is writing a memoir for her three triplet daughters to tell them about their lives. She begins explaining how she got pregnant after a one-night stand just before she met the love of her live.

The novel begins in Minneapolis, where Nora’s mother Patty Jane is closing down her “salon within a salon,” that is, a hair salon where she schedules cultural activities. But soon enough, Nora gets an offer to buy a stunning lake house from an eccentric older woman.

This novel is crammed with eccentric characters, and that is one of its problems. It has so many eccentric characters, what with complicated familial relationships, Patty Jane’s former customers, and various friends, I couldn’t keep them straight because we learn very little about them. Instead of building fully realized characters, Landvik simply throws out a few details about each one or briefly shifts the focus to one and then shifts it back. I see that this novel is a sequel or closely related to Landvik’s previous novel, so perhaps she is relying on people’s knowledge of the previous novel to know who these people are. But I hadn’t read it, and some of the characters are new. Since the novel is supposed to be written by Nora, the shifting point of view is a problem. Why would we suddenly get several paragraphs from, for example, Henry’s point of view (Henry being Nora’s mother’s lover’s son)?

link to NetgalleyAnother problem is the plot, at first relatively easy to follow even though broken up by many unsignaled time shifts. But after Nora has her triplets, the story seems to lose focus and we just get anecdotes as the girls age. In fact, there are really no ups and downs or climaxes, except ones we can predict.

When you combine all this with an unrelieved feel-good quality, you’ve probably guess that it isn’t my style. I can actually get into a novel full of eccentric but nice characters and can think of many that I’ve loved. But they have to be well executed and funny. This one isn’t.

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Day 640: The Enchantment of Lily Dahl

Cover for The Enchantment of Lily DahlBest Book of the Week!
Lily Dahl is a 19-year-old making a living as a waitress in a small-town cafe and living in an apartment above it. Although she is saving for college, what she really wants to be is an actress.

Lately she has been fascinated by Ed Shapiro, an artist living in a room across the street. He is in his thirties, recently deserted by his wife. At night she can’t keep herself from watching as he paints in his underwear.

Lily’s next-door neighbor, an old lady named Mabel, is helping Lily with her part of Hermia in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lily has also made friendly overtures to Martin Petersen, even though he seems very odd, because she remembers they used to play together as children. Martin stares at her and stutters, but he becomes a different person when acting his part of Cobweb in the play.

As Lily gets to know Ed Shapiro, she becomes aware that someone is watching her apartment and has even entered it when she wasn’t home. She suspects Hank, the boyfriend she broke up with when she realized she liked Ed.

Odd things begin to happen around town. Martin has left her some bewildering gifts and told her things that don’t make sense. She has heard rumors of someone seen near the river carrying a body and people seeing something that looks like an angel. Lily begins to fear that someone may have been killed.

This novel is an eerie one, and Lily, although at times naive, makes a strong and daring heroine. Occasionally, the novel seem almost dreamlike as it explores the differences between appearance and reality. You may find it hard to put down the novel, which in its look at the underbelly of a small town in Minnesota, reminded me a bit of the movie Blue Velvet, although the novel is gentler.

Day 445: Annals of the Former World: Crossing the Craton

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the final short book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee examines the craton, the flat land that lies in the central Midwest of the continental United States. If you have read my reviews of the other books, you might remember that McPhee wrote each one about a separate geologic area near I-80, along which he traveled with different geologists telling the story of the formation of the country. Each of those four books was published separately, but Crossing the Craton was added when the complete volume was published, perhaps for completeness. (I think it was published separately at a later time.)

Because there are few outcroppings in the Midwest, little can be seen of the rock underlying this area, a thin veneer over the basement rock that comprises 90% of geologic time.  McPhee explains that until very recently this basement, or Precambrian, rock was neglected in geology texts. Because Precambrian rock by definition has no carbon in it from living things, carbon dating was not available. Nothing was known about the rock.  For a long time it was thought to have been there since the creation of the earth, but that idea has been found to be incorrect.

Just in the last 40 years or so, new kinds of dating methods and other technological advances have allowed geologists more insight into what is going on beneath the surface in these older rocks. Gravity maps have revealed a huge tectonic rift, for example, that runs from eastern Nebraska through Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and under Lake Superior, where it joins one rift shooting north into Canada and another running right through Michigan. This three-pronged rift is similar to the one that runs down the Red Sea to meet the rift in the Gulf of Aden and the East African Rift, only that one is much younger.

In this book McPhee explains how the Canadian Shield and the central portion of North America were mostly likely created. He also looks at recent technologies such as zircon dating and aeromagnetic mapping, and speculates on the discoveries about the basement rock that could emerge in the future.

Although this is the shortest book in the volume, more the length of an essay, its emphasis on technology makes the subject matter of lesser interest to me than that of the previous books.

Day 438: In the Lake of the Woods

Cover for In the Lake of the WoodsBest Book of the Week!

In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery, but not in the traditional sense. It is also a harrowing look at one man’s tormented psyche after the trauma of war.

It is September 1986. John Wade and his wife Kathy have retreated to a remote cabin on Lake of the Woods in far northern Minnesota after John sustained a brutal defeat in a state senatorial campaign. Wade had been beating his opponent handily until information about Wade’s past surfaced, or perhaps it was only rumor.

One day Kathy disappears. Thinking she is just out for a hike, Wade does nothing for awhile, waiting for her to return. Late that night he goes into the village for help.

This all seems fairly straightforward, but O’Brien periodically presents us with a story about what actually happened, only the story is different each time. As O’Brien reveals more, we learn that Wade was behaving oddly the night before Kathy disappeared–or did she disappear that night? Is she lost, did she leave on her own, did something happen to her? We learn that Wade has taught himself to forget anything he doesn’t want to think about–as if it never happened.

O’Brien shows us the psychological makeup of a man who has undergone a great deal of trauma–whose father committed suicide when he was ten, who spent his boyhood in the basement teaching himself magic tricks, who served in Vietnam. But he is also a man who periodically spies on his wife, who calls himself the Sorceror, who makes of himself a master manipulator, who has horrible nightmares.

O’Brien alternates chapters about the search with those that explore Wade’s past. He also includes chapters of excerpts from interviews of those involved and from other sources as diverse as books on psychology, biographies of politicians, and records of military massacres, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn and My Lai.

This novel is absolutely riveting, written in spare and beautiful prose, disturbing and powerful. It is not so much a mystery as a novel about mystery–why we find it fascinating and what we can never know, a single human soul.

Day 179: Shadow Tag

Cover for Shadow TagWhen Irene America takes out her diary one day, she realizes that her husband Gil has been reading it. She is outraged, so she starts another diary, a true one, which she keeps in a safe deposit box at the bank. In her original diary, she begins inserting falsehoods to torment Gil. The disintegration of their marriage is the plot of the disturbing Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich.

Irene wants to leave Gil. He is manipulative and abusive to her and their three children. His moods are mercurial–even the dogs are wary of him. He is obsessively jealous, to the point of resenting the attention Irene gives their children.

Irene is not perfect either. She drinks too much and resorts to subterfuge and manipulation. She is alternately endeared and repelled by Gil’s attempts to win her back.

Gil is a successful Native American artist who has painted only Irene for years, but now she finds his depictions of her degrading. Still, she doesn’t have the courage to leave him, which will have fateful results. The tension in the novel builds to a surprising and tragic finish.

A detached omniscient narrator alternates telling the story with the two diaries written by Irene. You do not find out who the omniscient narrator is until the last chapter.

I can’t help but wonder how much of this psychological novel is a fictionalized account of Erdrich’s marriage to Michael Dorris. I see now that a review in the Washington Post agrees. If so, it is a masterly and brave work of self-exposure that faithfully shows the unpredictability of marital relationships. It is extremely well written and very sad. If you require likeable characters in your fiction, you won’t find them here, however.

Day 140: Shoot To Thrill

Cover for Shoot To ThrillWhen I say I occasionally read P. J. Tracy’s Monkeewrench mysteries when I want something light, do not think of cozies or quaint mysteries like those written by Alexander McCall Smith. The Monkeewrench novels are thrillers with plenty of action and sometimes horrifying crimes, but they have a lightness to them that makes them fun reading, probably because of the entertaining characters and witty dialogue.

Monkeewrench Software, a team of eccentric but world-class software developers, is the focus of all of these novels, which are written by a mother-daughter writing team. The main character is Grace MacBride, a mysterious woman who lives in a protected compound because her enemies have been trying to kill her since the first book. Also on the team are the wealthy company owner, Harley Davidson, who houses the eccentric team in his mansion; the flamboyant Annie; and Roadrunner, an exercise addict.

The FBI has contacted Grace and the team to ask for help because someone, or rather a group of people, is posting videos on YouTube of murders that take place all across the country. It is not clear if the murders are real or re-enactments. But a real murder that may be related is being handled by Leo Magozzi, Grace’s lover, and his partner Gino Rolseth of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The case is interesting, but even more interesting are the relationships between the characters, particularly the one that develops between the Monkeewrench team and John Smith, a quiet, correct agent near retirement who has been assigned to be their liaison.