The Night Watchman: Book summary and reviews of The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman

by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich X
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
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Book Summary

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.

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Book Awards

  • award image Pulitzer Prize Winners, 2021


Media Reviews

"A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"National Book Award winner Erdrich once again calls upon her considerable storytelling skills to elucidate the struggles of generations of Native people to retain their cultural identity and their connection to the land." - Library Journal (starred review)

"A work of distinct luminosity…Through the personalities and predicaments of her many charismatic characters, and through rapturous descriptions of winter landscapes and steaming meals, sustaining humor and spiritual visitations, Erdrich traces the indelible traumas of racism and sexual violence and celebrates the vitality and depth of Chippewa life…Erdrich at her radiant best." - Booklist (starred review)

"Erdrich's inspired portrait of her own tribe's resilient heritage masterfully encompasses an array of characters and historical events. Erdrich remains an essential voice." - Publishers Weekly

"The Night Watchman is above all a story of resilience…It is a story in which magic and harsh realities collide in a breathtaking, but ultimately satisfying way. Like those ancestors who linger in the shadows of the pages, the characters Erdrich has created will remain with the reader long after the book is closed." - New York Journal of Books

This information about The Night Watchman was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Cathryn Conroy

This Is a Masterpiece I Will Long Remember with Its Extraordinary Writing and Riveting Storylines
This book consumed me. Often, I would look up after reading and like waking from a deep sleep, I wondered where I was. Or my husband would talk to me while I was reading, and all I wanted to do was tell him what had happened—not because I wanted to tell him about the book, but because I felt as if we both knew the characters as real people and I needed to tell him what they were doing now. Yes, this book consumed me.

Magnificently written by Louise Erdrich, this is the story of a group of close-knit Chippewas living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. The novel begins in September 1953 and continues through the spring of 1954. Although Thomas Wazhashk, who works as a night watchman, might be considered the lead character, there are others who are just as important and prominent in the story. There are two major plotlines:
• Thomas works as a night watchman at the new jewel bearing plant so he can spend his days working for the tribe to better their poverty-stricken lives. When the U.S. Congress writes legislation to terminate the tribe, take their land, and relocate them to cities, Thomas enjoins the tribe to fight the government—with every brilliant trick he can muster.

• Patrice just graduated from high school and has a job at the jewel bearing plant to support her family as its only source of income. Her father is a drunk, who only comes home to steal their money and terrorize his wife and children. Patrice's sister, Vera, relocated to Minneapolis but is now missing, and her family is terrified for her. Patrice ventures to Minneapolis in an attempt to find her sister, and what has happened to her is truly horrific.

• More minor plotlines include two Mormon missionaries who want to convert the largely Roman Catholic tribe to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the conflicts and passions of friends and lovers; and the wrestling with death—those deaths that are sudden, those that are feared, and those that are expected.

This is a masterpiece that I will long remember. It is not only a riveting story, but also an exposé on what it truly meant to be a Native American in the 1950s when government-sanctioned discrimination and deprivation of basic life services kept the tribes mired in deep poverty and often alcoholism. (Of course, how much has really changed in nearly 70 years?)

But in the hands of the talented Louise Erdrich what could be a dark, melancholy tale based on historical events becomes one of redemption and hope sprinkled with just enough laughs to make this book a real treasure.

This is what great literature does: It helps us appreciate and value other cultures and makes us better human beings.

Roberta Winchester

Heartbreaking yet Uplifting
I absolutely loved this book. If I hadn't borrowed it from a friend, I would have gotten out my yellow highlighter and highlighted passages. This is my first Louise Erdrich book and I can't wait to read more of her work. Her writing is beautiful and lyrical.

One of the main characters in the book is based on Erdrich's grandfather (named Thomas in the book) who was a night watchman but also the tribal head of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. He is informed that the US government is trying to dispossess them of their land.

The book follows many characters, primarily Patrice who is Thomas' granddaughter. Her sister, Vera, has left home but no one has heard from her. Patrice sets out to "the big city" to look for her and almost immediately encounters abuse and discrimination.

I loved the characters in the book because they were so real and unforgettable. Even days after reading the book I am thinking about them.

I live in a state with a large Native American population and I am aware of the poverty in which so many live. Erdrich succeeds in bringing awareness to many of the issues they face---missing and exploited women, discrimination, poverty, alcoholism. The book is even more moving because it is told by one of their own.

Now I'll buy my own copy and read it again with highlighter in hand!

Nancy Niv

Wonderful story that helped me understand the Chippewa culture better. Some sly humor, some pathos, memorable characters, and refreshing animism and spiritualism. Edith the dog: be still my heart! Best book I have read in years

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Author Information

Louise Erdrich Author Biography

Photo: Hilary Abe

Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children's books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

Author Interview

Name Pronunciation
Louise Erdrich: er-drik (means rich earth)

Other books by Louise Erdrich at BookBrowse
  • The Sentence jacket
  • The Round House jacket

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