March: “The Night Watchman” by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Our March 2020 Book of the Month

To quote a writer, we recently highlighted in our newsfeed, Grace Paley, “ Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” Grace Paley took a lot of time away from writing to be an activist, however, the author of our March Book of the Month has powerfully found a way to do both.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich is nothing short of what is to be expected from one of our most prolific and important Native American voices. After years of creating fictional characters living on fictional reservations to tell important stories, she has tapped into the history of her own grandfather, the titular night watchman. In the 1950’s he was a tribal leader of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and an organizer and activist in the fight against the termination of nation-to nation treaties by the U.S. government. She pieced together her grandfather’s letters, history and fiction to create a novel that is compelling and forces us to reckon with our nation’s past, as our current administration continues to strip away the sovereignty and identity of Native Americans. In the Wall Street Journal, Erdrich stated that she still worries about modern forms of Native American dispossession. “It’s giant corporations who have their eye on tiny scraps of land or want right-of-ways through tribal lands,” she says, referring to recent fights over pipeline routes. She uses fiction to speak truth to power and storytelling to build empathy and action.

As I was reading, the obvious conclusion was a reiteration of what readers of Malcolm X, MLK, and James Baldwin should already know. We are all The Night Watchman and at some point we have to stop what is happening on our watch.


Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman.

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.

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. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.


Louise Erdrich is the author of twelve novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her debut novel, Love Medicine, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent novel, The Plague of Doves, a New York Times bestseller, received the highest praise from Philip Roth, who wrote, “Louise Erdrich’s imaginative freedom has reached its zenith— The Plague of Doves is her dazzling masterpiece.” Louise Erdrich lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

For a non-fiction pairing, we recommend Senator Byron Dorgan’s The Girl in the Photograph. To read more about the book, visit our newsfeed post.


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