The Night Watchman: Pulitzer Prize Winning Fiction
The Night Watchman, the 2021 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Louise Erdrich is, ostensibly, a fictional account of her grandfather’s efforts in the early 1950s to prevent a Congressional effort to terminate federal support for the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa. The story is so much more.
Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was tribal chairman in 1953 when U.S. Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, R-Utah, introduced legislation to terminate tribal rights as negotiated, as long ago as the 1800s, under treaties between the federal government and Native tribes. Watkins’ view was Indians needed to be assimilated into white society and drop all vestiges of their culture. Removing all federal support and recognition of tribal land and reservations, in his view, would lead to that end.
Thomas Wazhashk is the name Erdrich gives to her grandfather. He works as a night watchman at a jewel-bearing plant on the reservation. He uses the quiet time between rounds of the plant to write correspondence to various public officials and tribal council members to muster support to oppose Watkins’ legislation.
Erdrich develops his character based on stories she was told and letters he left to his children. She puts the reader in the dark office where he spent his nights, walking his rounds, shining his flashlights into dark corners, checking doors, and talking with an abused and long-deceased classmate at the Indian boarding school they were sent to in their youth. His Palmer method penmanship, taught at that school, graces his letters, and his nighttime meals packed by his wife, Rose, are tasted, as well.
From the lunchbox, the reader is taken to his home on reservation land where others are met and sub-stories woven into the tale. The other main character in the book is Pixie, now known as Patrice. Smart, determined, curious, hard working and the once homecoming queen at her high school, her story develops along with Wazhashk’s, an uncle. She works at the same jewel-bearing plant on the reservation but her older sister Vera’s disappearance to the Twin Cities is always on her mind. Some thought Vera died but Patrice and their mother are certain she is still alive. Patrice travels by train in search of her, with Erdrich again creating visuals from her words as Patrice is immediately engulfed in the mean streets of the big city.
Although born and raised on the rural lands of her reservation, she quickly learns street smarts to free herself from the clawing reach of men out to pull her down to their depraved level. The contrast between the everyone-out-for-themselves, survival-by-any-means-necessary life is contrasted with the frequent loyalty, warmth and quest to live of her relatives and fellow Indians on the reservation, to which she returns.
The cultures are separate but the similarities cannot be ignored. Using few words, Erdrich writes of Patrice, who is well aware of how animals procreate, but is uncertain how humans do the same. The brief sex education lesson from a co-worker is hilarious, probably more common than not to teenagers everywhere. Likewise, an encounter with an under-consideration, perhaps, just-maybe boyfriend, in the outdoors on a frigid, snowy day turns steamy as Patrice draws on her friend’s lesson.
There is a brutal attempted sexual assault in which some of Patrice’s former classmates offer her a ride and then one of the boys attacks her while his friends hold her down. Using her wits and resolve she escapes to her uncle, fishing on a lake where she convinced the boys to take her. The horror is not confined to Indian reservations. The writing is picturesque and puts feelings on the pages.
Under Patrice’s uncle’s guidance and cajoling, a delegation from the tribe, including Patrice and a not-completely, but almost-assimilated cousin, who is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, travels on a three-day train trip to Washington, D.C., to testify before Watkins’ committee. Again, the story is about the people and their feelings as much as it is about the intricacies of legislation and blatant disregard for history. Paramount, are the everyday realities of those who live on reservations and so many of those who left in hopes of finding a never-found better life in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
The realities and the people who live them, set in the early 1950s in the novel, have shadows over events to this day. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa escaped complete termination but other tribes did not. More recently, the Trump administration sought to terminate the Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod, whose people and culture greeted the Pilgrims in 1620 and stretched back thousands of years before that.
The Night Watchman is a novel but it is a window that allows the reader to see accurately the manner in which white colonial settlers and expansionist governments sought to destroy the people who lived on the continent long before their tiny sailing ships landed on eastern shores. In the midst of that reality, the book is a celebration of the life of the Indians who refuse to hide and die in the face of systemic oppression.
Some state government officials, local school boards and schools may find the book too volatile to be taught to impressionable high school students. The Pulitzer Board knew better. The book is literature worthy to be read in any home or classroom.
WINNER OF THE 2021 PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
WASHINGTON POST, NPR, CBS SUNDAY MORNING, KIRKUS, CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY, AND GOOD HOUSEKEEPING BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
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.
Praise for The Night Watchman: Pulitzer Prize Winning Fiction
“Erdrich delivers a magisterial epic that brings her power of witness to every page…We are grateful to be allowed into this world…I walked away from the Turtle Mountain clan feeling deeply moved, missing these characters as if they were real people known to me. In this era of modern termination assailing us, the book feels like a call to arms. A call to humanity. A banquet prepared for us by hungry people.” — Luis Alberto Urrea, New York Times Book Review
"With The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich rediscovers her genius…This tapestry of stories is a signature of Erdrich’s literary craft, but she does it so beautifully that it’s tempting to forget how remarkable it is…This narrator’s vision is more capacious, reaching out across a whole community in tender conversation with itself. Expecting to follow the linear trajectory of a mystery, we discover in Erdrich’s fiction something more organic, more humane. Like her characters, we find ourselves “laughing in that desperate high-pitched way people laugh when their hearts are broken.” — Ron Charles, Washington Post
"Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman is a singular achievement even for this accomplished writer. . . Erdrich, like her grandfather, is a defender and raconteur of the lives of her people. Her intimate knowledge of the Native American world in collision with the white world has allowed her, over more than a dozen books, to create a brilliantly realized alternate history as rich as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.” — O, The Oprah Magazine
“In powerfully spare and elegant prose, Erdrich depicts deeply relatable characters who may be poor but are richly connected to family, community and the Earth.” — Patty Rhule, USA Today
“Erdrich’s newest novel thrills with luminous empathy.” — Boston Globe
“No one can break your heart and fill it with light all in the same book — sometimes in the same paragraph — quite like Louise Erdrich…She does it again, and beautifully, in her new book…gorgeously written, deeply humane…Erdrich’s writing about the bonds of marriage and family is one of the greatest strengths of her fiction. She captures all the affection, teasing, pain and forgiveness it takes to hold a family together.” — Tampa Bay Times
“What is most beautiful about the book is how this family feeling manifests itself in the way the people of The Night Watchman see the world, their fierce attachment to each other, however close or distant, living or dead.” — Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Louise Erdrich is one of our era’s most powerful literary voices…In The Night Watchman Erdrich’s blend of spirituality, gallows humor, and political resistance is at play…It may be set in the 1950s, but the history it unearths and its themes of taking a stand against injustice are every bit as timely today.” — Christian Science Monitor
"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
“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 spellbinding, reverent, and resplendent drama…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)
“In this kaleidoscopic story, the efforts of Native Americans to save their lands from being taken away by the U.S. government in the early 1950s come intimately, vividly to life…A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“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 clever, artful and compelling novel tells an important story, one to open our hearts and minds. If you’re looking for a book that is smart and discussable, tender and painful, riveting and elegant, you’ll find it in THE NIGHT WATCHMAN.” — BookReporter.com
“Erdrich has chosen a story that is near to her heart, and it shines through on every page…The connection between Erdrich’s characters and the natural world is unbreakable, and some of her most evocative passages are dedicated to this relationship.” — Philadelphia Inquirer