Published by Hachette UK on March 5, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Indigenous, Literary, Magical Realism
Like many people I’ve been frustrated with the US government’s inability to pass common-sense gun control laws. I was in desperate need of an uplifting story where characters successfully take on Washington. In Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman the Chippewa tribe works to stop a bill that would take away their land and identity in the 1950s. This is an excellent piece of historical fiction told from multiple perspectives.
This story is fictional, but in the preface Erdrich explains that the character of Thomas Wazhashk is based her grandfather. The Chippewa live on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In 1953 Congress is about to pass a “termination” bill that would result in the US claiming Native American land and forcing the occupants to relocate to the cities. The bill not only steals Native American land but also attempts to whitewash the Native Americans, essentially eradicating them. Thomas Wazhashk is a council member of the Chippewa that works as a night watchman at the local jewel-bearing plant near the reservation. During the long nights working alone at the plant Thomas writes correspondence to politicians in hopes of stopping the passing of the termination bill. Erdrich’s story has chapters told from perspectives of many people living on the reservation. Pixie Paranteau (she prefers Patrice) is a young woman working at the jewel bearing plant. Patrice makes a trip to Minneapolis to search for her missing sister Vera. The antagonist of the story is Senator Arthur V Watkins (who interrogated Erdrich’s grandfather in real life) who is the strongest supporter of the termination bill. Erdrich also weaves supernatural elements into the plot (who doesn’t love some magical realism).
My favorite part of the novel were the loveable characters. I think it’s always refreshing to read a book with characters that I’m invested in and that are believable. One theme I picked up on was the younger Chippewa embraced their heritage to varying degrees. Pixie learned the Chippewa language and many of the skills passed down from elder family members. While her sister Vera wanted to escape the reservation and go to the city dressing to pass as a white woman. Even though Pixie shows interest in learning about her heritage she insists everyone call her Patrice, a more American name. Erdrich succeeds in educating the reader about the time period and the politics of the termination effort. For me, the best historical fiction strikes a balance between engaging story with dynamic characters and educating the reader about the time. In this respect Louise Erdrich knocks it out of the park!
In the spirit of Louise Erdrich’s grandfather’s tenacity for change I’d like to challenge you to take action to advocate for a political issue you’re passionate about. I’ve added some helpful links below for organizations that are working to prevent gun violence (the issue I’m currently fired up about).
https://www.everytown.org/ The largest gun violence prevention organization in America
https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/ A non-profit organization whose mission is to end school and create a culture that prevents violence
https://www.commoncause.org/ A helpful website that helps you determine which politicians represent your geographic region at every level of government