The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, 2020
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The Plot (from Goodreads):
Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new “emancipation” bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn’t about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run”?
Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice’s shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn’t been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.
Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice’s best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.
I am extremely impressed by this author’s ability to weave together fact and fiction. The Night Watchman is based loosely on Louise Erdrich’s grandfather’s story of how he fought the Native American Dispossession Act and struggled to protect his people from being “terminated”.
I found these characters to be lovable and easy to root for. I particularly enjoyed how the author depicted Patrice’s innocence when she left the reservation in search of her sister. Everything she experiences is new to her. Certain situations were scarier to the reader than they seem to Patrice, though.
I admit that I am not knowledgeable about the Chippewa, so I really enjoyed being able to hear Erdrich’s story. Some of the traditional stories had me chuckling out loud, despite the serious nature of the novel overall. I also loved that she tied everything back to what happened in real life in the author’s note.
This character-driven novel was both entertaining and informative, and rooted in history. I definitely recommend it!