This year, I set out to read at least one book per month by an Indigenous author. The Night Watchman was my February Indigenous read and my first book by Louise Erdrich. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Louise Erdrich, she is a prolific Indigenous author who has won a slew of awards including the National Book Award for The Round House in 2012.
The Night Watchman is based upon Erdrich’s grandfather’s life as a night watchman and a tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota as he fights the Native American dispossession in the 1950s.
Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman.
Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new “emancipation” bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn’t about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run”?
Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice’s shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn’t been in touch in months, 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.
Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice’s best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.
In the Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.
The Night Watchman is a story deeply rooted in hope. The novel incorporates a bit of a mystery, but I would say it really falls into the literary and historical fiction genres.
Erdrich’s storytelling is without a doubt exceptional. This novel was easy to breeze through and get lost in. I did, however, find its pacing a bit uneven. The story also encompasses parallel stories, both of which I liked, but I think they did not intertwine and connect enough.
While Thomas Wazhashk is the titular character, many characters and extended family are also woven into the narrative. All of the characters were rich and well-developed. For me, it was easy to connect with the characters despite our disparate experiences. It also helped paint a vivid picture of reservation life during the time period.
One of the most important aspects of The Night Watchman for me was the depiction of poverty, systemic racism, and sexual exploitation of Indigenous communities. Erdich sheds light on the very real issues that face tribal communities. I love a book that tells a powerful story and also teaches me something new. This book has sparked my interest in learning more about Indigenous history in the U.S.
Overall, I enjoyed The Night Watchman and am glad to have read and learned from it. I would highly recommend this book, especially to those who are interested in reading more Indigenous literature (as we all should.)
The Night Watchman
March 3, 2020
2021 Pulitzer Price
for Fiction Winner