It is 1953. Thomas Wazhushk is the night watchman at the first factory to open near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a prominent Chippewa Council member, trying to understand a new bill that is soon to be put before Congress. The US Government calls it an 'emancipation' bill; but it isn't about freedom - it threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land, their very identity. How can he fight this betrayal? Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Pixie - 'Patrice' - Paranteau has no desire to wear herself down on a husband and kids. She works at the factory, earning barely enough to support her mother and brother, let alone her alcoholic father who sometimes returns home to bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to get if she's ever going to get to Minnesota to find her missing sister Vera. In The Night Watchman multi-award winning author Louise Erdrich weaves together a story of past and future generations, of preservation and progress. She grapples with the worst and best impulses of human nature, illuminating the loves and lives, desires and ambitions of her characters with compassion, wit and intelligence.… (more)
The 1826 New Testament had been published by the American Bible Society without a binding. Someone encased it in thick, rich brown leather held together with coarse thread. The book has a gentle curve as if kept in a back pocket for a long time, the edge of the book worn away.
My husband's great-great-grandmother read that volume daily until the day of her death, and that made it special to her family, but to hold an artifact that once was in the pocket of their ancestor and kin was even more sacred to those of Native heritage gathered to accept it.
I have often thought about that meeting. For all my research on John Riley and my reading about Native American history, after that meeting I felt my otherness and my ignorance. I read the white man's histories and think I know Riley. What arrogance.
Reading The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich reinforced my awareness of ignorance born of privilege in a European dominated society. I had never heard of the Indian Termination Policy being carried out just after the time of my birth. Natives were to be assimilated with all the rights of an American citizen. It was intended that individuals find work and become self-supporting and pay taxes. Reservations were taken out of Native control, health care and education no longer provided. Life was harsh before termination; it got worse after termination. It was 'extermination' under a new name.
Erdrich's novel is based on her grandfather's life and his successful endeavor to block the termination of the Turtle Mountain Reservation.
The night watchman is the hardworking hero of the story, a family man who works nights at the new factory that employs Ojibwe women to perform the delicate job of creating jewel bearings. He is determined to protect their reservation and people from termination, working around the clock and raising money to travel to Washington, D. C. to present their case before Congress. Their way of life, their community is threatened. They feel a deep connection to the land that supported their ancestors since time immemorial.
Patrice is one of the young Ojibwe women working at the factory. The job allows her to support her mother and brother. She dreams of going to university to study law. She tries to blend into European society but encounters racism and sexual harassment. Two men vie for her attention, unaware of her naivety about relationships and sex and desire.
When Patrice's sister Vera goes to the city disappears, she goes takes all her savings to look for her. It is a nightmarish trip into the depravity of the underside of the city, a place where young native women are vulnerable prey. She returns with Vera's baby.
It is hard to write about this novel. It left me with strong feelings, including deep shame for how the prevalent European society has treated Native Americans since we landed on these shores. Erdrich does not exploit our feelings, there is no melodramatic writing when describing chilling scenes of exploitation and abuse.
The courage and strength of the characters is inspirational. I loved how one love storyline was handled, showing that true love is communal and not about personal desire.
Fiction can educate and enlarge our limited experience. And I thank Erdrich for furthering my understanding.
I was given access to a free ebook by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
This book just grabbed right ahold of me - my heart, my mind, and my spirit! I hated putting it down! Her writing... my goodness! The description of the quilt of patches, and the origins of the materials is just wonderful! And her characters are so
"Together they drank the icy birch water, which entered them the way life entered the trees, causing the buds to swell along the branches."
Honestly, to me, that is word magic!
In the novel, according to the author, Thomas Wazhashk is very loosely based on the life of her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, who was a member of the Turtle Mountain Indian Tribe in North Dakota. He worked as a night watchman in a factory. A
When the story begins, while Thomas fights to preserve the Chippewa, Pixie, (Patrice) Paranteau, his niece, is searching for her sister Vera who had supposedly moved off the reservation to take advantage of the government’s job training policy. She and her baby have disappeared from Minneapolis. Pixie becomes involved with some pretty unsavory characters in Minnesota, and sometimes I think her experiences pushed the envelope of belief. Pixie was portrayed as a meek, mild-mannered young woman, and then she suddenly turns into this street-wise, worldly fighter without the benefit of any experience to justify this change.
So the two themes run concurrently, Thomas Wazhashk’s efforts to thwart the American Congress’s efforts to, as he believes, “exterminate” the Indian Tribes and the effort of Pixie to find her half-sister Vera and her child. At times it seemed to ramble in its presentation in order to support one or another social or subtle political issue. The “white man” is presented in a terribly negative light as hypocritical, self-serving, highly devious and manipulative with no good intentions. The American Indian is presented as highly moral, near perfect, intelligent and G-d-fearing, always attempting to be hard working, clean, honest and upstanding, albeit with the few exceptions who appear lazy and apt to drink, coupled with those boys and bullies that took advantage of the weak, (like the government) using their power unjustly to cause harm. Sometimes superstitious beliefs seemed to control the outcome of certain events.
The author used magical realism throughout the story with thinking animals that took on anthropomorphic attributes, characters that interacted with ghosts, and characters and dogs that had psychic ability and she even endowed “old man winter” with the ability to think and act. There is definitely a spiritual thread that runs through the book that contains aspects of several religions, including the Indian’s unique faith.
The American Indians have been uprooted, slaughtered, manipulated and taken advantage of for years. The “Trail of Tears” is a testament to that. The book seems to have been intended to illustrate and illuminate that issue, as well as to point out that people have the ability to join forces and stand up together to fight the corruption of government. For me, the book itself goes off on a bit too many tangents in order to expose the abuse; however, it is a worthwhile read because it encourages further research into Native Indian history and into the issue that is the plight of many minorities today, the feeling of powerlessness. The novel takes place in 1953, and our culture, way of life and government were very different then. The ability of the strong to take advantage of those weaker, in many ways, however, remains today.
The best thing about the book is the author’s way with words, although, in this book, there may have been too many that were perhaps not well chosen, since some of the dialogue seemed childish and seemed to demean the Indian, almost making them caricatures, which I am certain was not the author’s intent.
I would say the worst thing about the novel is the author’s choice to read her own book. It is read a little too slowly and with way too much emotion which often seems inappropriate. Her voice become too sultry and soft and drones after awhile causing the listener to zone out or lose interest periodically. I was not sure I would be able to finish listening to the book, but I soldiered on because of the nature of the story, but truth be told, I hope I didn’t miss anything with my occasional lapses of interest.
In this story we find Thomas Wazhashk, the the night watchman of the title, working at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas 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. He wonders, 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"? While anyone who has read about the history of the relations between the indigenous tribes and the steady encroachment of American settlers will not be surprised by these events, it is disturbing that they are happening in post WWII America.
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.
In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Her very real characters speak simple, but truthful words, all the while fighting a Federal Government whose words are duplicitous.
Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a moving work of both personal and historical fiction whose story has both sadness and a positive spirit that finds its source in family and community.
The man based on her grandfather is Thomas, a night watchman in the jewelry making factory in a Native American homeland in North Dakota. Thomas is also on the Turtle Mountain Advisory Commitee that oversaw the area, and between both of those jobs he spends as much time as he can with his loving wife Rose and their children.
Thomas becomes concerned when he learns that the US House of Representatives is considering a bill that would end support of the Native Americans on Turtle Mountain, effectively forcing the residents there to leave their homes and move to the big city to find jobs to support their families. Selling the land would violate a treaty signed with the tribe years ago, and Thomas rallies the people to petition the government to honor their agreement and defeat the resolution.
Patrice is a young woman who works in the jewelry factory and lives with her mother, drunken father, and siblings in a rundown home. She works hard and hopes to get a promotion so she can earn more money to support her family.
When her older sister, who had married and moved away to the big city, disappears, it is up to Patrice to find her. Her journey to the big city brings her into contact with men who take advantage of young women, and Patrice has to use her wits to get out of more than one jam.
She has two men back home who want to date her, although she doesn't want to date them. Wood Mountain is a boxer who ends up on her train to Minneapolis, and he decides that he should keep an eye on her. Barnes is the math teacher who wants to be her boyfriend.
Every character in The Night Watchman is interesting. Thomas, Rose, Patrice, Wood, even the secondary characters like the Mormon missionaries who attempt to convert the Native Americans, are so fully realized, you find yourself wanting to know more about each of them. Erdrich writes in each of their voices brilliantly.
Erdrich packs a lot of story into her lovingly crafted novel, and you learn a lot about life on Turtle Mountain in the 1950s- the traditions, the food, the culture, the family connections. The scenes set in Washington DC as Thomas and Patrice and others go to meet with congressmen, are also fascinating.
The Night Watchman is a book to get totally immersed in, and in a time when most of us can't leave our homes, it's great to be taken somewhere else for a day or two. It's especially appealing to those who like history. I highly recommend it.
Erdrich weaves her culture into the stories in pockets through the novel making it deeper, richer and shows not only her gift for storytelling, but her love of her family. These were some of my favorite parts of the book.
Lastly, there were parts where the actions slowed and my attention wavered. Keeping the characters straight was difficult at times, but at the end, I decided that didn't matter. I do intend on rereading this at some point to focus on these side characters and draw me more into their stories. I listened to the audio for a few parts of the book and that may have been the issue.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. I love Erdrich's writing and this is not my favorite of hers, yet I loved it.
Along the way, the author cleverly crafts stories of the lives of Native Americans and reminds non-Native-Americans of their shared humanity. She shares stories of a boxer seeking to have more meaning in life than just sport, a beautiful, aspiring, and smart young lady with little economic opportunity, a college student seeking an academic career, a young lady caught in a web of drug addiction and sexual abuse, and an aging night security guard laboring to save the ways and lives of his people.
The story varies points of view from several characters. Although this has the effect of diminishing suspense, it simultaneously builds intrigue into the larger culture of Native Americans. The reader cannot help but empathize with these strong characters. Erdrich’s effective characterizations help the reader to see beyond race into shared humanity. To use a musical metaphor, the result is less of a short song and more of a resounding symphony of voices that function in a crescendo. Readers encounter a people and a culture, not just a lone protagonist. The Chippewa people themselves are a collective protagonist.
I recommend this book to those who seek to jump out of the narrative that white people have the only dominant voices in America. While themes of the inhumanity of slavery resound in contemporary societal discourse, African American voices are not alone; the Native Americans continue to suffer from having their continent – their home – stolen from them, with little recompense. This story reminds all readers of their perspective, told by Erdrich, one of their own. It is deeply moving, hopeful, and persuasive.
To be fair, the other characters give a fuller picture of life on the reservation. Perhaps if this book had been presented as a series of interlinked short stories, with Thomas's story to anchor it at the end, it would have worked better. Instead, we jump from one person to another, or see the characters interact in stilted, forced tones and situations. The pieces all add up to a picture of the fragility of life on the reservation, and the danger posed by the Indian Termination Act, but it's a choppy picture, and one that doesn't make for a very satisfying story.
In this magnificent work of historical fiction and magical realism, Louise Erdrich takes us back in time to relive an all but forgotten attempt to violate the treaties with Native Americans and seize from them what is rightfully theirs in the guise of helping them. Along the way, she, as ever, paints beautifully true portraits of the human spirit and experience. The Night Watchman is yet another brilliant addition to Louise Erdrich's already impressive oeuvre.
I was fortunate to receive a complimentary advanced copy of this book via a NetGalley giveaway. Many thanks to all involved in providing me with this opportunity.
At the beginning of The Night
It took me almost two weeks to read this book which is why I only gave it 3 and 1/2 stars. Towards the middle it started to drag and I wasn't motivated to pick it up and see what happened next.
The novel revolves around two principle characters with many others who make the story fascinating. Thomas (Erdrich's real grandfather) is the night watchman at the jewel-bearing plant near the reservation, a light industry that employs many of the Native Americans, mostly women. Pixie (or Patrice, her real name she insists on being called) works at the plant and lives with her mother Zhaanat in a nearly primitive house, occasionally visited to the dread of the family by their drunken and abusive father. Patrice is smart and ambitious. She is admired (unspoken but plainly obvious) by Lloyd Barnes, a white teacher at the reservation school. Barnes is a boxing coach for Wood Mountain, a young man who also longs for Patrice. Patrice's sister, Vera, has disappeared into Minneapolis after heeding an invitation to find greater opportunities there. Patrice travels to the city to find her and experiences bizarre and dangerous interactions with men, one of whom persuades her to don a mermaid costume and water dance for ogling patrons of a bar. She does not find Vera, but through several supernatural omens believes that Vera may have been subjected to sex trafficking. She does find Vera's baby and brings him back where Wood Mountain becomes as devoted to the infant as any father would be.
Thomas is indefatigable in organizing the tribe to prepare a presentation before the Congressional committee considering the bill. The tribe has few resources to assist them in this, but succeed in advancing a petition to Congress and raise funds for the trip to DC through a boxing match which features Wood Mountain against a well-known white opponent. The testimony before the congressional committee results in the bill's failure, this outcome mirroring the actual history.
Vera escapes from enslavement and finally makes her way back to the reservation. Wood Mountain loses his infatuation with Patrice and falls in love with Vera. Barnes never appeals to Patrice, but courts other young women in a fumbling way.
This summary does not do justice to the richness of this work. The lives of the Turtle Mountain, their poverty, their deep shared identity, the long history of betrayal is deeply portrayed. There are occasions of spiritual, even supernatural, visions experienced by many of the characters. One of these involves visions Thomas has from time to time with Roderick, a ghost from their time at the "assimilationist" boarding schools in place to strip Native American children of their culture. Roderick died of tuberculous at the school, but he continues to visit Thomas. The intimate relationships of the Indians with their surroundings -- animals, plants and the land -- are beautifully conveyed by the author.
Two minor characters are introduced in almost a comic relief, mocking way. Morman missionaries are making futile attempts to proselytize the clan members who are mostly Catholics, but are imbued heavily with their inherited perspectives on the spiritual world. The racist, demeaning Morman theological view of Native Americans -- the Lamenites -- is skewered.
Another interesting character is Millie, a Native American college student who has mostly distanced herself from the tribe. Millie, who is described as Asperger's-like in her obsession with geometrical patterns of dress, has done an anthropological study of the clan and is called on to help prepare and present the case to Congress. Millie forms a bond with Patrice and there are intimations that Millie will help Patrice find the means to further her education, something that Patrice clearly longs to do.
Erdrich has said that her inspiration was reading the letters and documents of her grandfather. His commitment to preserving the culture and lands of the Turtle Mountain clan is inspirational. It is said that it wasn't until the presidency of Richard Nixon that the impetus to terminate the treaty relationship between the government and the tribes finally ceased.
Erdrich has written many fine novels around themes of Native Americans and this ranks among the best of them.
Louise Erdrich knows how to tell a story and with The Night Watchman, she demonstrates her mastery of the novel. It's perfectly paced, even as she takes the time to make each character come alive. Patrice and her uncle Thomas a good foils for each other, Thomas proceeding in a methodical way and full of appreciation for his life, Patrice barreling into dangerous situations as she fights to find her sister and keep her family afloat. It's just so very well done.
Thomas's efforts to block federal termination of the tribe, as written here, wouldn't have been interesting enough without Patrice's story to carry us to the end. Erdrich stated she hoped some of her grandfather's humor would come thru in her characterization of Thomas, but I have to say it did not. Mostly he just comes across as stressed out, so the occasional flashes of family time come as a surprise.
Chapters are often brief, giving you windows on the thoughts of many characters in this small community in 1950's North Dakota border. While descriptions of their homes & meals indicate extreme poverty, the people aren't beaten down by it, but find ways to share and help each other.
At the end, I'm left with the feeling that Patrice's story is incomplete. Perhaps there will be a sequel, as Erdrich often does.
Her sister Vera is missing and the search for her and what happened to her is also part of the narrative force. Erdrich masterfully creates characters you care about and learn from, including some that are simply spirits. I always enjoy becoming involved in the life of her people, the kaleidoscope of stories she pieces together, feeling guilty about what our country has forced upon a culture it has subsumed. In her acknowledgment section, Erdrich reminds us "Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart."
This is another important book by one of our greatest writers. Highly recommend.
The matted blocks of his long gray hair were tucked into the collar of a sagging army coat. His face was starred with burst veins. His nose was lumpy, purple. He had once been handsome, and still wore a yellowed silk scarf tied like a movie-star ascot.
They were confined on the reservation, and had to get permission from the farmer in charge to pass its boundaries. For a while they were not allowed to go off to search for food, and one terrible winter the old people starved themselves so that the young people could continue.
Louis was a big man, like a buffalo, with a massive head and hunched shoulders. His legs were short and bowed, as if they’d bent under the strain of the top half of Louis. When Louis smiled, his cheeks bunched up like small round apples.
“Sure, back in 1924 we got the vote. After the black man, after the women. But we got the vote.”
Valentine. What a perfect heart-shaped name for a woman whose face wasn’t heart-shaped at all, but thin, a narrow face, slippery eyes. Valentine was a bit sly, like a lady fox. Yes, a dainty lady fox trotting through the woods with a dead rabbit drooping in her jaws. Not exactly . . .
But Arthur V. Watkins was clearly an enemy—of the most dangerous sort: a principled enemy who thought what he was doing was for the best.
Thomas works as the night watchman of the jewel bearings plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Patrice is Thomas’s niece. She also works at the plant and is the first member of her immediate family to have a “real” job. However, working at the jewel bearings plant is barely enough to support her family. Her sister Vera is missing after moving to Minneapolis and Patrice must brave the big city to try and find her. Unfortunately, she can only afford to take a few days off for her journey. Then there is Wood Mountain, an amateur boxer. His coach is Lloyd Barnes, the math teacher. Valentine is Patrice’s best friend and works at the plant with her. There are many other supporting characters too. Unlike some books with a large cast, it was easy to keep track of everyone because they were all so different from one another.
One thing I loved about this book is the many intertwining threads running through it. Some were suspenseful, some were horrifying, some were melancholy and some, like the one with the two Mormon missionaries, were humorous. It was like reading several books all at once in the best possible way. I also loved how Erdrich portrays the sense of community between the characters on the reservation. There is a mystical element that I enjoyed as well.
As a work of historical fiction, The Night Watchman serves to remind us that our country’s attempts to erase Native Americans is not a thing of the distant past. It also highlights the extreme poverty found on reservations, with homes that don’t even have running water or electricity. It’s clear from the author’s note that a lot of research went into The Night Watchman to ensure that is it historically accurate. I think that this book would make an excellent book club selection. Highly recommended.
Despite a setting plagued by poverty, alcoholism, and oppression, the book also presents a tolerant tightly knit community with an abiding heritage in which natural and spiritual desires are presented as delights even when occasionally unnerving. While there are dangers and near escapes, there are also many scenes of sly humor. This is a book filled with the natural beauty of the woods turning through the seasons and with fascinating characters both gentle and courageous. The author writes of Patrice after she receives a new pair of eyeglasses, “The precision of the world took her breath away.” It’s is a statement that also describes the impact of this novel.