Reading Through the Awards: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

July 16, 2021

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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.”

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich tells the story of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s effort to save their tribe and land during the Termination Era, when the US government set out to end its recognition and support of native tribes under the guise of “emancipation.” Tribes that were deemed “successful” would be terminated, their members no longer considered native by law, and “relocated.”

The novel’s main protagonists are Patrice (Don’t Call Her “Pixie”) Paranteau and Thomas Wazhashk, the latter based on Erdrich’s grandfather, who was integral to preventing their band’s termination. Despite stating in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that she tried to fictionalize him as much as possible, you can feel the lens of love through which Thomas is written. He is characterized by his kindness and devotion to his family and people. His compassion contrasts nicely with Patrice’s stubborn determination, who refuses to let anyone define her, by name or otherwise.

Above all, Patrice wants to find her sister, Vera, who left for Minneapolis under a government relocation program and hasn’t been heard from again. Patrice’s search for her feels surreal, partly as a consequence of her naivete. However, we learn through others in the tribe that Vera’s fate is all too common, and it’s an indicator of what could become of their people if they are terminated and sent to live in the cities.

Perhaps some readers will find themselves wanting more from Vera’s mystery, which is resolved fairly quietly, but Erdrich’s scope is wider. She weaves in multiple voices, even animals and ghosts, to create a sweeping narrative, one that gets to the heart of the community and shows the reader what is at stake.

Cassidy Colwell

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich envelops readers with its stories, themes and structure. Based off her grandfather’s own experience of putting together a delegation to fight against the House Concurrent Resolution 108, Erdrich’s writing reminds readers that even when life’s big moments come along, day-to-day life never stops. When Thomas, one of the main characters, puts it upon himself as a tribal council member to stop the bill from passing Erdrich writes his story with all the daily struggles as well like staying awake during his graveyard shift and caring for his family. The other main character, Patrice, is similarly fleshed out. While she is searching for her missing sister, Patrice is experimenting with her sexuality, worries about time off from work, and wonders if she will be able to save up for a watch. These scenes and character thoughts cleverly allow the characters to move the story forward instead of relying on an action packed plot. At times this style slowed the pace of the novel, but overall, it allowed readers to get to know every character very intimately, and they are worth getting to know.

The Night Watchman is set in 1953, but the two main plotlines of the book (the fight against the bill and Patrice’s search for her sister) are heartbreakingly relevant to today and the way Native American communities are still treated. Erdrich easily marries history with the fictional characters and the details of what they and the minor characters go through are distressing and at time horrifying when it’s realized the Native American communities are still dealing with these same issues. However, another way Erdrich embeds the Ojibwe culture is by sprinkling Ojibwe words and phrases throughout the book. At no point are translations provided, but instead readers are meant to take in the context of the dialogue and do their best to decipher the Ojibwe language. It reminds one of the writing rule to resist explaining things to the readers, and Erdrich definitely succeeds at using the Ojibwe language effectively and leaving it at that.

Erdrich writes about the Chippewa tribe with love and pride. It pours out of each chapter and with every character that is introduced. The Night Watchman is painstakingly intentional with its details and stories in order for the readers to understand the significance of the novel as a whole. It’s that kind of authorial dedication that makes The Night Watchman so moving, and keeps readers coming back for more from Louise Erdrich.

Melanie Spicer

To be deprived of sleep is to experience a different type of delirium: one that is slippery, a bleary strangeness you feel in your mind and your bones. In Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Night Watchman, the prose takes on a restless fluidity that blurs the lines between not only the earthbound and the spirit world, but also the certainty of logic and the uncertainty of heart. The novel’s protagonist, Thomas Wazhashk, is the sleep-deprived, perpetually working tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a night watchman at a jewel bearing factory. Based on Erdrich’s grandfather, Thomas spends his evening shifts writing letters to protect his people from the effects of House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108), a bill passed in 1953 that alleged Indians would be “freed” from their marginal status. Thomas recognizes the bill for what it truly is: a government-sanctioned way to strip Indigenous people of their lands and tribal affiliations.

Meanwhile, Thomas’s niece, Pixie (or is it Patrice?) is on a journey to find her sister, support her family, and grow into a stronger sense of self along the way. At the beginning of Pixie’s journey, after she begins working at a bar in Minneapolis, she reflects on the harder, bolder person she has become in such a short time. “This was again the sort of feeling and thinking that could only be described in Chippewa, where the strangeness was also humorous and the danger surrounding this entire situation was of the story that you might laugh at,” she thinks. The duality between danger and humor exists throughout The Night Watchman from the poverty-stricken people of the Turtle Mountain Reservation to the jokes Pixie shares with her friends during their lunch at the jewel bearing factory. Although Pixie and Thomas are the core of the novel, we seamlessly move into other forms and points of view, not unlike the movement of spirits in and out of the waking world—like Roderick, the ghost of Thomas’s childhood friend, who travels with the Turtle Mountain delegation to Washington, D.C.

The Night Watchman is distinctly political, even though the hearing takes just one chapter. The hearing is just a formality; Erdrich drives the story with intention, immersing the reader in the lives of those who would be affected by the legalese in HCR 108. Ultimately, Erdrich’s latest work is a love story, a mystery, and a masterful kaleidoscope of experiences that come together to guide the narrative toward a commentary on community, family, and resilience.

Rebecca Paredes

It is no surprise that Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Night Watchman, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is rich with dynamic and unique characters while also perfectly balancing historical facts with Erdrich’s family’s past to create a compelling narrative that demands audience engagement from the first page. The Night Watchman is not the type of novel that one reads purely for pleasure. Notably, the story based around Erdrich’s maternal grandfather in many ways demands readers to engage, make considerations about this moment and the lasting impacts all through the eyes of the array of fictional characters belonging to the historical Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe.

From a writing perspective, the use of third-person omniscient was key to executing this story so well. Seamlessly Erdrich’s narrative voice moves from one character to another while simultaneously creating distinct, witty, and unique voices to each. The choice to use this flexible point of view allowed Erdrich to bring to life day-to-day living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. This choice also enabled her to highlight more than one perspective to the main plot, enhancing the reader’s understanding of the heartache and complexity of what tribal members were facing if their tribe was terminated by House Concurrent Resolution 108. Moreover, this choice for narration empowered Erdrich to explore intricate relationships and meaningful subplots such as Patrice’s, Vera’s, and Wood Mountains. My only criticism with this choice was some points of view slowed the novel’s pacing and didn’t (and perhaps to my fault as not reading closely enough) contribute to the story in a meaningful way, such as the missionaries and Barnes.

Overall, I rarely tell anyone they must read a novel. But The Night Watchman stands as one of those few where I think anyone should because there was much to take away long after I turned the last page.

Cassandra Wagner

Curated by Brandon Williams


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