At the heart of Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Night Watchman is the battle over Native dispossession. Thomas Wazhashk is a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Reservation’s first factory, a jewel-bearing plant. His character is based upon Erdrich’s grandfather, whose letters and personal accounts provided insight and a valuable resource as she wrote the novel. As chairman of the Turtle Mountain band, he traveled from North Dakota to Washington DC to fight the emancipation bill of 1953, which intended to cut Native Americans off from their land, their identity, and their way of life. Sadly, it’s a battle still being fought.
Juxtaposed against Thomas’s story, is the story of his niece Patrice, who works at the jewel bearing plant. Patrice supports her mother and her brother with her wages; her alcoholic father shows up intermittently to terrorize the family and abscond with whatever money he can find. Her older sister Vera, who left Turtle Mountain for Minneapolis, has not been heard from and Patrice dreams that she is in danger. Patrice takes time off from her job to go to Minneapolis to find her, but instead she finds Vera’s infant son. While there, Patrice is coerced into working at a restaurant as an entertainer, donning a blue rubber ox suit and swimming in a tank of water. She plans to only stay long enough to find Vera and the pay is good, but she soon discovers a sinister world where Native American women are exploited and held against their will.
Other characters and their storylines offer a reprieve from the darkness. There are moments of hilarity and romance. Wood Mountain is a Chippewa boxer who falls in love with Patrice. Barnes, his boxing coach, who is also the high school math teacher, competes with him for Patrice’s affection. But Patrice has little interest in a relationship and adroitly sidesteps emotional entanglement for the most part; she is focused on finding Vera. When Thomas invites her to accompany the group of Chippewa council members to Washington DC to testify before Congress, Patrice meets a young Chippewa scholar who inspires her to a different kind of future.
Erdrich’s novels are full of heart; every character in Night Watchman is richly drawn. The heartbreak of the historic displacement of Native Americans and the shame of a government hellbent on taking their land, resources, and identities stands in sharp relief against the integrity and courage of Thomas and the Turtle Mountain council as they fight to retain rights established through treaties made in good faith “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run.”
Night Watchman is the story of strong families and wise women, of a rich heritage and traditions rooted in the land. The characters will take up residence in your heart and mind long after you turn the last page.
I highly recommend Night Watchman for fans of Native American history, Ignatia Broker’s Night Flying Woman, and Staci Drouillard’s Walking the Old Road.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews every month on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or online at :https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0