You know that feeling you get when you’re watching someone do something that’s challenging but they make it look easy, and for just a second you think, “I could do that”? That’s what I felt while reading The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.
In the first few chapters readers meet, deliberately and without fanfare, the two primary characters. Only after I was in the midst of the more action-driven content did I look back and realize that the slow unveiling of the lives and routines of these characters is not something I typically appreciate. Yet I read through it without begrudging it once.
That’s when my moment struck. I paused to consider, “What did Erdrich do or how did she write that I continued to read without resenting the gradual build-up to the rest of the content?” Her language is descriptive and succinct. Her ability to include details that are both meaningful and enhancing to the setting is impressive. I was watching an author take a difficult skill (creating a vivid context without losing the reader) and make it look easy.
Set in 1953, the story evolves with two plots anchoring it.
The first plot involves Thomas Wazhashk. He is the night watchman at a jewel-bearing plant, and is also a farmer, husband, father, son and council member for the Chippewea. Wazhashk becomes aware of legislation that is moving through Congress to “emancipate” several of the tribes from the Turtle Mountain Reservation.
Wazhashk knows that a better word for the bill would be “termination.” This sets him on course to challenge the contents of the bill and advocate for it not to pass. Due to his other responsibilities, and laced with the significance of his efforts from both an historical and personal perspective, this additional burden pushes him to his physical and mental limits.
The second plot centers around Patrice Paranteau. She’s a young woman who has graduated high school and works at the jewel-bearing plant to support her family. Her fierce and uncompromising personality make her a likable and relatable character.
Paranteau’s story is about trying to locate her beloved older sister in Minneapolis. It is a coming-of-age arc for Paranteau. She rescues her sister’s new baby but ultimately leaves the city without much information about her sister’s whereabouts. Paranteau brings the baby to her mother and resumes her job at the factory. Nevertheless, decisions about her future are imminent. She’s not prepared to make these decisions, but she struggles to find alternatives.
Paranteau’s story continues as death, love, work, and life cycle in their natural sequences and rhythms. Ultimately, she joins the delegation to Washington, D.C. where the storylines intersect. Her story resolves with a hint of her next step forward, which is, as many of her actions have been throughout the story, compassionate and forward-reaching. A heroine for all readers to cheer.
My Review: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
A succinct overview doesn’t do the book enough justice. Honestly, the summary above is just the bones of the book. It doesn’t capture the relationships with history and with people that make it a compelling and beautiful read.
Often, I think of good books as those that I don’t want to put down. The more that I read though, the more I think there’s a special type of complex, fictional story that is ideal as a slow reveal. The Night Watchman is that kind of book. I looked forward to reading this book in a few chapters every night.
Though the events are singular in their impact on the main characters, Erdrich never loses her grip on placing them within the cycles of daily living. Characters come and go, events build and then dissipate, history repeats and creates, and relationships shift and change.
Erdrich brings attention to the development and sustainability of identity throughout both plots. Secondary characters give voice to nuances of perspective. On the surface, readers will be drawn into the immediate conflicts that the characters face and the development of those characters (go Patrice!). Going deeper, readers will contend with the history and sociology of the U.S. from a fictional account of an historical event. At both levels it is a compelling read.
About the Author
Louise Erdrich is a recommended read for anyone looking for a good story. She is also a good author to read for those who are interested in Native stories and perspective in history. In The Night Watchman she revisits not only the intrusion of government but also sex-trafficking of native women, misapplied religious missionary activity, and the ghost of boarding schools.
Her storytelling and writing are not-to-miss. I read The Birchbark House series with my two daughters in elementary school. We loved her humor, insight, and storytelling about the family she introduced.
The Night Watchman is my first adult novel by Erdrich, but I hope it is not my last. She has received numerous awards for her work (including the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman) and has written over 10 books for adults. Time for me to go pick out the next one to read.
What Else to Read?
I favor non-fiction, but periodically a work of fiction comes across my shelves that begs for reflection and review. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich made the cut and so did The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Check them both out if you like literary and historical fiction.