You may know I’m not a huge fan of mini-reviews. All three of these books deserve a full review. But given limited time, all three were really great reads so I wanted to share my thoughts.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
I loved this book, which tells the story about the Turtle Mountain tribe and their fight to maintain federal tribal status in the 1950’s. Erdrich is telling a fictionalized story about her own grandfather, who is the title character, a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant. Thomas is a scholar and an advocate, so when he hears that a bill has been introduced in Congress to “emancipate” Turtle Mountain, he rallies the community to fight back. The bill would eliminate the federal protections on the land and would eliminate all benefits to the tribe, devastating the entire community, who would be forced to move and scatter, losing their traditions and their history. Erdrich notes in the afterword that this is something that happened to many tribes.
The story also focuses on Patrice Paranteau, the valedictorian of her class and a worker at the factory. Patrice leaves the reservation to find her sister, who moved to Minneapolis and hasn’t been heard from since. Patrice is torn between her traditional life on the reservation, her desire to go to college, and her need to find her sister. She faces abuse and poverty at home but is also steeped in the traditions she’s learned from her mother. She isn’t ready to settle down and marry or have kids, and she has trouble relating to many of the other girls at the factory.
Erdrich’s portrayal of these and the other characters is so thoughtful; I really admired the bravery and strength of the characters. It’s a fascinating book made even more interesting by the historical aspects and the author’s own connection to the story.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Mandel has written another complicated, thoughtful drama that isn’t quite what you expect. This book is quite different from her other novel, Station Eleven, and in the end I can’t rave about it quite as much, but it was still quite good. The book centers around two half-siblings, Vincent and Paul, in British Columbia. They both take jobs at a luxury hotel, but Paul is fired for vandalism, and Vincent leaves to become the wife of a New York financier.
It’s a strange, meandering story, and like Station Eleven, it has a lot of different characters and covers many years. It’s about a financial Ponzi scheme (similar to Bernie Madoff) but in the same way that Station Eleven wasn’t just about the apocalypse, it’s really about the characters. Vincent is someone who constantly reinvents herself and never seems to be at home in any one place. Her friends and family come and go in a way that was quite sad – but then that’s partly because she seems unable to be herself. In the very beginning of the book she falls off of a ship, and the rest of the book leads the reader to understand what happened – was she killed, did she jump, or was it an unfortunate accident? The challenge with this book is that it’s hard to get a real handle on Vincent — but Mandel’s thoughtful writing kept me engaged. I was less enthused about the parts that really focused on the investment banking, but I was always fascinated by Vincent.
The Lost Man by Jane Harper
I liked Harper’s The Dry, but at the time I read it, it suffered by comparison to a very similar book. Then I listened to The Lost Man, and my experience with this book was really different. Partly that might be because it was audio and I loved hearing this story in an Australian accent. But it was also because the story really resonated – it’s much more than just a murder mystery, although it is that. It’s the story of three brothers who are all farmers in rural Australia, until one of the brothers (Cameron) turns up dead from the heat and dehydration, miles away from his car. In this story, the Outback IS the killer – the powerful sun will kill anyone who gets careless. But Cam knew better, so what happened? The power of this story is in the way Harper unfolds it, but also in the emotional tale that develops among each of the remaining family members. By the end of the book I absolutely loved Nathan, the narrator, and especially his relationship with his son. If you’re looking for a mystery with deep, slow-building character development, rather than a lot of action, I highly recommend this one. One thing to be aware of – early on in this book, I found myself thinking the story was very male-focused. The female characters are all on the periphery, and some of the female characters were described in troubling ways. At one point I remember thinking, did a woman really write this book? If you find yourself thinking that, stay with it. Yes, it’s told through a male point of view, but Harper definitely brings in the female perspective. This was easily one of the best mystery novels I’ve read in a while.
Note: I read two of these books for the Read Harder Challenge: The Lost Man (rural setting and a mystery with a victim who’s not female) and The Night Watchman (a book by a Native author).