The Night Watchman

In the 1950s, the U.S. Congress announced a resolution to dissolve its treaties with a number of American Indian nations, a move that would bring about the end of several tribes, including the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa. Their land on their reservations, already meager and of poorer quality than land owned by their white neighbors, would be up for sale, and members of the local tribes who could not purchase the land would be given assistance to move, most likely to cities. Patrick Gourneau, Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, then the tribal chairman and a night watchman at a local jewel bearing plant, fought the move, and Erdrich tells a fictionalized version of the story of him and his neighbors here.

Like so many of Erdrich’s novels, this is a story of a community, not a single hero working to save his people. Thomas Wazhashk is a center point to the community, serving as its chair and the one who organizes the effort to take a delegation to Washington, DC, and he is well-respected by the other characters. But, to me, he wasn’t the most interesting character in the novel.

Equally important to the narrative, and more interesting to me, is Patrice Paranteau (often called Pixie, to her constant annoyance). Patrice works at the jewel bearing plant and is fiercely stubborn and independent. When her sister Vera goes missing, Patrice travels on her own to Minneapolis to find her, with no knowledge of the city and how to navigate it and just a couple of addresses to go on. This leads her on a bizarre journey that is a little bit horror story, a little bit social commentary, and a little bit surreal comedy. (That’s actually what a lot of Erdrich’s books are like.)

Crucial to both Thomas’s and Patrice’s quest is the boxer Wood Mountain, whose story takes some surprising but clearly inevitable turns. And there are lots of lovable characters on the sidelines, like Patrice’s friends Valentine, Dolores, and Betty, all of whom have opinions and men and sex. And there’s Millie, the scholar who helps with the congressional testimony by sharing what she’s learned about the tribe’s economic state. And Barnes, the hapless boxing coach and math teacher with a crush on Patrice … or Valentine … or, please, just anyone. Also Roderick the ghost, who is a ghost. The only characters who didn’t seem to fit are the pair of Mormon missionaries, who I think had some value to the story, but they got a little more attention than their value warranted.

This novel touches on some difficult subjects, such as the dissolution of Native tribes, the boarding schools that tried to forcibly assimilate Native children, and the trafficking of Native women. But Erdrich has a gift for taking the horror seriously while employing a light enough touch that the book doesn’t get lost in horror. The affection between the characters and their loyalty to each other and their community are given more narrative weight than the horror, and I think that’s what makes her books so satisfying.

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1 Response to The Night Watchman

  1. Amy Rea says:

    I’m reading this right now and loving it, and just finished her newest book, The Sentence, which I also loved. And had the privilege of purchasing both books from Erdrich’s bookstore in Minneapolis, where her books are always autographed.

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