The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

TitleThe Night Watchman
AuthorLouise Erdrich
TypeHistorical Fiction
FinishedAugust 3, 2022
My Rating★★★★★
View/Purchase (Non Affiliate)Amazon

This novel centers on actual events of the bill put forth by Arthur V. Watkins to terminate the reservation of the South Dakota Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas in the early 1950s. Thomas Wazhashk – the night watchman at the Chippewa Mountain jewel bearing factory spent much of his time lobbying against the termination bill. After working all day on tribal business and fighting the termination bill, he grabbed a few hours of sleep before heading off to his graveyard shift at the factory. He worked through his exhaustion to provide for his family and serve his community. He finds out about the pending termination bill by accident.

“…every so often the government remembered about Indians. And when they did, they always tried to solve Indians, thought Tomas. They solve us by getting rid of us. And do they tell us when they plan to get rid of us? Ha and ha.”

Page 80

Though life on the reservation is hard; it is better to have the tribe together than to be dispersed throughout the country with no support system. What the whites see as emancipation, the Native Americans see as something else entirely.

“In the newspapers, the author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of loft words around this bill – emancipation, freedom, equality, success – that disguised its true: termination. Termination. Missing only the prefer. The ex.”

Page 90

A second plot involves Patrice, Thomas’ niece, who works at the same plant and sets out on a journey to find her sister, Vera, who has disappeared in Minneapolis, St. Paul. Patrice has a harrowing time after being scooped up by an unscrupulous man who offers her a job swimming in a blue oxen outfit in a tank in a bar. She shows her mettle and strength in breaking away. 

There are a slew of strong secondary characters such as Patrice’s physically, emotionally and spiritually strong mom, Zhaanat, as well as Wood Mountain and Lloyd “Haystack” Barnes who vie for her attention

On of my favorite things about the construction of the novel is that while we believe Vera is in trouble, we don’t have any scenes with her for most of the book. Everything we know about her situation comes from Patrice’s telling, Zhaanat’s dreams, and Chippewa spiritual trips to locate her,  and the clues Patrice finds in the city. Two-thirds of the way through the novel we finally see her in the beautiful one-page chapter “Two-Day Journey”.

“Vera found that she was walking. She was wearing a warm overcoat, a hat, and boots on her feet. She was on a road. She knew, as everybody around her knew, that the soul after death sets off on a journey to the next life. Sets out walking on a road like the one she was on now, dark and lonely, but clearly marked in moonlight. To be dead was perhaps a relief.”

Page 279

Life on the reservation is hard and poverty abounds. I was reading one morning while eating granola heaped with raisins, blueberries, and bananas. As I was shoveling it down for breakfast I read a paragraph describing Patrice’s family eating oatmeal with just a few raisins in it. They made sure to only have one raisin every other spoonful of oatmeal and sucking on the raisin so they could savor the flavor. Despite the hard lives the tribal members support one another and do what they can to hold the community together.

Sometimes, prizes such as the Pulitzer can be political in nature so I went into the book with a wary eye to see if this was truly as good a story as I hoped. I was floored by the story telling; the Native American traditions and beliefs are treated with the utmost respect with the spiritual practices taken at face value.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough; it gets the full 5 stars.

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