The Night Watchman
It’s September 1953. The U.S. Congress has just brought a bill to the floor that will abrogate the rights of Native Americans to their lands. The so-called “emancipation” bill is really only a plan to relieve the federal government of its responsibilities to the Native American people. Just what does this bill mean to the people living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota? And how can the people of the reservation fight against their “termination?”
The Night Watchman tells the story of the tribe’s successful battle for its rights largely through the perspective of two key characters, Thomas Wazhushk, a member of the Chippewa council, and his niece, Pixie Paranteau, a rebellious young woman who plans to leave the reservation and move to the city.
We follow Pixie as she makes a disastrous run for the big city in search of her sister, Vera. Vera has gone missing. And we follow Thomas as he makes his rounds of the reservation, gauging the feelings of the community, taking its pulse. He listens to opinions and offers support and advice. Then leads a delegation of his people to Washington DC to argue the tribe’s case.
Erdrich’s novel glides effortlessly along. Her control of language is masterful – such a light touch that delivers so much power. The reader is caught up in the flow, absorbed somehow, and enriched. Erdrich’s main characters are well-developed and interesting. Wazhushk is perfect as the concerned councilor who takes on the U.S. government. This is a very moving read, satisfying and uplifting.
The Night Watchman is based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, who was the chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Gourneau led the successful fight against “termination” by the federal government in the 1950s.
Louise Erdrich received the 2012 National Book Award for her novel, The Round House. Her book The Plague of Doves (2009) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2015, she was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Erdrich lives in Minneapolis where she owns a small, independent bookstore, Birchbark Books, that specializes in Native American literature.