Book Review: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman  by Louise Erdrich Genre:  Literary fiction, Native American fiction Synopsis:   Thomas Wazhashk is the night watch...

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Genre: Literary fiction, Native American fiction

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.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Racism, Racial erasure, Misogyny, Missing Indigenous women and girls, Abduction, Sexual assault

Overall rating:  ★★★☆☆

I feel so horrible when I don’t fully enjoy a story that’s so deeply rooted in a culture other than my own. What’s interesting is I really loved the different parts of The Night Watchman, but I really struggled with the connections between the different stories - that’s right stories, plural.

"As animals subject to the laws of earth, we think time is experience. But time is more a substance, like air, only of course not air. It is in fact a holy element."

Obviously people love this book - it won a Pulitzer for Christ’s sake. But for me, I think I would’ve been able to process everything better if each person’s tale was a different, separate short story, and it would’ve been exciting to see the connections between the different stories. The way the book is actually laid out made it challenging for me to really follow along as I was reading. I definitely have had time to process in these past few months after finishing the book. I can look back on it all fondly, but I was very confused as I read.

I wish I could’ve loved the book more, but it certainly felt like the kind of book that would win a Pulitzer, if you know what I mean. It felt like assigned reading, and honestly made me feel dumb while reading it. While it was certainly wonderful in many ways - like many historical fiction novels, it wasn’t a favorite for me.

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