The Night Watchman
“The Night Watchman is above all a story of resilience. . . . Like those ancestors who linger in the shadows of the pages, the characters Erdrich has created will remain with the reader long after the book is closed.”
Thomas Wazhushk is worried. After many lean and hungry decades a very modest prosperity has found its way to the reservation. With the opening of a jewel bearing plant, and the help of government assistance, people are finally able to feed their families. But now even this meager existence is being threatened by the same government that forced then onto the reservation—a place not fit for farming and not plentiful enough to hunt game.
A senator from Utah has proposed a bill (HCR 108) which will “emancipate the Indians.” While the supposed point of the bill is to assimilate the tribes into American society, the bill nullifies all treaties and, in reality, will strip them of their culture, their history, and their land. As head of the tribal council, Thomas understands more than most exactly how devastating this bill will be.
Patrice “Pixie” Partaneau is also worried. Employed at the same jewel bearing factory where Thomas is night watchman, Patrice’s sister Vera has disappeared into one of these inner cities, and Patrice needs to find her. But leaving to look for Vera may cost Patrice her job, and her job is necessary for her family’s survival.
As Thomas uses the nighttime hours at work to study how best to fight for his tribe’s survival, Patrice takes a leave of absence and takes to the streets of Minneapolis in search of her sister. While Thomas works to save a way of life, Pixie works to save her sister, and as the two storylines progress, the systemic racism and societal antipathy toward the plight of Native Americans is at once heartbreaking and maddening.
On her way to Minneapolis, Patrice encounters Wood Mountain, a Native American boxer and friend of the family who, knowing the dangers lurking in the cities for a young, Native American woman decides to keep an eye on her. Though independent, Patrice is smart enough to realize that she is naïve and in over her head. Wood Mountain helps to extricate Patrice from a place of certain violence and danger and together they locate Vera’s child. Unable to find her sister, who has seemingly vanished, Patrice returns home with the babe.
Thomas is also smart enough to understand he needs help. He enlists the help of Millie Cloud, a graduate student in Minneapolis. They form a small group and, together with Patrice, travel to Washington to testify before Congress. Their aim is to show congress that HCR-108 is based upon misinformation and bias and will be harmful.
With the future of their tribe and the future of Vera all in question, the group prepares to leave Washington for home. But the toll that the last few months has taken on all of them is a great one, and no one will emerge unscarred.
In The Night Watchman Louise Erdrich takes the reader into a place and time that they may not have been aware existed. Erdrich seamlessly blends the past, the present, and the future into her narrative and effortlessly skips between the physical and spiritual planes. Her writing shines as she discusses tribal folklore, ritual, and medicine, and it feels as if the reader has been invited into her home to be enlightened and taught.
The Night Watchman is above all a story of resilience. Despite the best efforts of the government, the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa hold on to their beliefs, their culture, and their history. It is a story in which magic and harsh realities collide in a breathtaking, but ultimately satisfying way. Like those ancestors who linger in the shadows of the pages, the characters Erdrich has created will remain with the reader long after the book is closed.