Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman” opens with an Author’s Note about the novel’s relation to real life:
“On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations for ‘as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.’ The announcement called for the eventual termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. My grandfather Patrick Gourneau fought against termination as tribal chairman while working as a night watchman.”
Erdrich’s reverence for her heroic grandfather and her moral passion about the mistreatment of her people irradiate the magisterial, beautiful, important fiction she creates here.
The novel’s night watchman, Thomas Wazhashk, works at a jewel bearing plant that has brought many jobs to the people of his reservation in rural North Dakota. While he watches over the plant, protecting it from attack and danger, Thomas also figuratively watches over his people, as he ponders a new bill before Congress that purports to liberate Native Americans but in fact purposes to steal their land and decimate their tribes.
A member of the Chippewa Council, Thomas keeps guard over its traditions, its values, its future. A member of “the after-buffalo-who-are-we-now generation,” he mulls over pressing questions of identity and assimilation:
How should being an Indian relate to this country that had conquered and was trying in every way possible to absorb them? ... How could Indians hold themselves apart, when the vanquishers sometimes held their arms out, to crush them to their hearts, with something like love?
As Thomas canvasses the community in an effort to stir up opposition to the bill and plans a trip to Washington, D.C., where he and several others will testify against it, he blossoms from watchman into activist.
Thomas’s niece, 19-year-old Patrice Paranteau, was valedictorian of her high school class, but is stuck in a low-end job at the jewel bearing plant. “The first person in her family to have … a white people job,” and “the only barrier between her family and disaster,” Patrice works to support her mother and brother, who can’t count on her abusive, alcoholic father. Responsible and reliable, Patrice is also ambitious and romantic. She yearns for more expansive prospects, accomplishment and love, a larger life.
Two men — Wood Mountain, a Native American boxer and recent high school graduate, and his former math teacher and current boxing coach, Lloyd Barnes, who’s had a fetish for “Indian maidens” since he was a boy — compete for Patrice’s affections. Patrice fends off their importuning and fiercely resists the idea of becoming a typical wife and mother:
She had seen how quickly girls who got married and had children were worn down before the age of twenty. Nothing happened to them but toil. Great things happened to other people. The married girls were lost. … That wasn’t going to be her life.
But her older sister, Vera, stands as a monitory figure for the dangers of seeking experiences outside the restrictions and traditions of the Native American community. Lured by the promises of the relocation program — “Good Jobs in Retail Trade,” “Exciting Community Life and Beautiful Homes” — Vera moved to Minneapolis. She hasn’t been heard from in almost five months; rumors abound that she gave birth to a baby before she disappeared.
When Patrice strikes out to find her sister in the big city, the life she discovers there is tawdry and frightening. Leering, ogling, predatory men are everywhere. Illicit and illegal businesses, drug and alcohol abuse, racism and crime are rampant. When it becomes clear that Vera is in grave danger, Patrice enlists the help of Wood Mountain in her effort to solve the mystery.
Thomas is our literal night watchman, and Patrice must also watch out for her father’s lurking presence, but Erdrich beautifully evokes and explores the many figurative implications and resonances of both words. Night is a time of fear but also possibility, and “night” is associated with moral darkness, the murkiness of ethical decision making, obscurity and mystery, sleep and dreams, haunting and ghosts, grief, evil, luminous visitations. Watching as voyeurism, predation, control, or surveillance is ranged against watching as protection, care, attention, openness to wonder.
As “The Night Watchman” proceeds, we’re given more and more perspectives: those of Millie Cloud, whose study of economic conditions on the reservation becomes a crucial document in the tribe’s testimony; Wood Mountain’s mother, Juggie Blue, who accompanies Thomas to D.C.; and Thomas’s childhood friend, Roderick, dead but a powerful spectral presence. We’re granted access to the minds of Patrice’s best friend, Valentine; her co-worker Betty Pye, who confidently teaches Patrice about sex but struggles with her own shame and guilt around sexuality; and Patrice’s uncannily wise mother, Zhaanat. Vera and those who encounter, harm, or rescue her in her peregrinations also have their points of view presented.
Some readers may find the novel’s kaleidoscope of perspectives confusing or its ambling pace too slow. But those who can surrender to Erdrich’s intricate tapestry of a vision, who appreciate her remarkable ability to veer from humor to pathos in a pithy phrase and, as one character says of another, to “make life’s bitterness into comedy,” who admire her luminous empathy, will place “The Night Watchman” alongside the best of her remarkable fiction.