The Night Watchman

Written by Louise Erdrich
Review by Sarah Hendess

In 1953, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 108, designed to terminate federal recognition of several Native American tribes. Facing the loss of his people’s land, infrastructure, and community, Turtle Mountain Chippewa council member Thomas Wazhushk scrambles to raise money to send a delegation from their reservation in North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to persuade Congress to change its mind.

Meanwhile, Patrice Paranteau has taken a job at the reservation’s jewel bearing plant to help support herself and her mother after her alcoholic father abandoned the family. But when her older sister, Vera, goes missing in Minneapolis, Patrice scrapes together her savings to journey to the city to find her and the baby she is rumored to have birthed.

Full of colorful, three-dimensional supporting characters, The Night Watchman depicts a community’s fight for survival in the face of crushing poverty, overt racism, and sheer ignorance of federal government officials regarding the realities of Native American reservation life.

In her usual compassionate style, Erdrich reveals these harsh realities without victimizing her Native American characters, showing that the Turtle Mountain Chippewa are fully capable of defending themselves. Blending the physical with the supernatural, she gives readers a feel for Turtle Mountain culture and spiritualism while also showing how adept they are at playing the political game. In short, she has shown the community in all its nuance and none of its stereotypes.

Exposing a moment in history typically absent from white-centered textbooks, The Night Watchman is a treat for all readers who love family stories and is an important contribution to #ownvoices novels.