The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: A review

Louise Erdrich builds the characters in this book with infinite patience and care until they completely come alive for the reader. We feel as though we could reach out and touch them, have a conversation with them. Perhaps they are so real because they are based on real people that the author loved. All of the books in her ongoing Chippewa chronicles feel personal, but this one feels almost visceral. It is a story derived from her family history.

The night watchman of the title is Thomas Washashk (the word means muskrat) and he is based on Erdrich's grandfather who was, in fact, a night watchman. Thomas works guarding a factory where the women of the Turtle Mountain clan work during the day to fashion gemstones as drill bits for Defense Department ordnance and for watches. The factory must be protected at night from potential thieves. It is the major employer on the reservation and vitally important to the Turtle Mountain economy.

One of the women who work in the factory is Thomas's niece, Patrice, also called (much against her will) Pixie. Erdrich tells her story through these two characters.

The time is 1953 and a Termination Bill has been introduced in Congress that promises to "emancipate" America's indigenous people from their lands and their tribal affiliations. The effect of the bill would be to abrogate all those treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government. The treaties that had promised to be in effect "as long as the grass shall grow and the water run." It would "free" Indians to be just like any other citizens with no special protections or acknowledgment that the land had been theirs. When Thomas understands what the bill portends, he determines to fight it for the Turtle Mountain clan. He embarks on a letter-writing campaign to every politician who he imagines may have some influence in the matter and he takes delegations of his people to meet with many of them, culminating finally in a trip to Washington to testify before Congress.

Patrice, meanwhile, is fighting her own battles. The main battle is simply to survive, to get enough food to keep her family fed. She and her mother are haunted by the disappearance of Patrice's sister, Vera. She had moved to Minneapolis and then the family had lost all contact with her. Eventually, Patrice gets together enough money and gets time off from her job to go to Minneapolis to look for her. On the journey, she is accompanied off and on by a Turtle Mountain boxer called Wood Mountain. In the city, Patrice becomes entangled in a toxic and surreal world which frankly defies description. Just know that I will never be able to forget the image of the "waterjack." You'll have to read the book to understand.

The horror discovered by Patrice is reflective of the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Native American women and the scandal in that so little attention is paid to it. Erdrich manages to convey this, without overwhelming us, with a series of unforgettable images. And about halfway through the book comes a chapter entitled "Agony Would Be Her Name." The chapter is only nine sentences that describe the experiences of a victim who may be Vera. It is searing, shattering.

Patrice does not find her sister but she does find her baby that the family did not know existed. She and Wood Mountain take the tiny boy back home.

Thomas and his supporters find the government mostly unresponsive to their inquiries and their petitions regarding the Termination Bill. At one point, one of his supporters, Eddy, speaks these prescient and profound lines:
"Government is more like sex than people think. When you are having good sex, you don't appreciate it enough. When you are having bad sex, it is all you can think about."

At the risk of revealing too much, let me say that the Turtle Mountain clan survives. It is not "terminated," but some other Native American groups are not so lucky, and in an afterword, Erdrich notes that the Trump administration has tried to revive the policy (which was itself terminated during the Nixon administration) to apply to the Wampanoag, "the tribe who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving."

This is one of the most deeply moving books I have read in a long time. Erdrich's novels are like that, and this one is one of her best, in my opinion. I will not soon be forgetting Thomas and Patrice and all of their family and friends. In the final two sentences of her afterword, Erdrich writes: "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."

It does. Thank you, Louise.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. This sounds very good. It also sounds like it might be troubling. Unfortunately, fiction sometimes has to be troubling as it needs to reflect life.

    The treatment of Native Americans by the US government has been unconscionable.

  2. I love this author Dorothy and this book sounds so good. I am waiting for my turn as a library download.

    1. If you are an Erdrich fan, you will definitely love this one.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful review.

    1. Thank you, M. I could not possibly do it justice.

  4. Excellent review, Dorothy. I am going to read this as soon as possible! Louise Erdrich is amazing.

  5. The treatment of Native Americans remains terrible and especially the treatment of women. So many are victims are violence not only here, but throughout Canada as well. This sounds like a very powerful novel, and this review is excellent. Thank you for sharing.


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