The Night Watchman
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
WASHINGTON POST, AMAZON, NPR, CBS SUNDAY MORNING, KIRKUS, CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY, AND GOOD HOUSEKEEPING BEST BOOK OF 2020
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: A Novel…
— 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.”
“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
Harper Perennial, 9780062671196, 464pp.
Publication Date: March 23, 2021
About the Author
Louise Erdrich is the author of seventeen 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.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. What qualities define Thomas Wazhushk? In what ways is he like the muskrat he was named for? What, in addition to the jewel bearing plant, does he watch and guard?
2. In what ways is Rose valuable to Thomas and the rest of her family and community?
3. Watching the stars one night, Thomas is struck by the opposing natures of his first and last names. What do they represent? How is he able to integrate them into an identity or not?
4. Thomas spends much of his work time writing, both official correspondence and personal letters and cards. What is important about writing for him? What is the value of creating such documents?
5. Pixie Paranteau insists that others call her Patrice. Why is this? What’s the difference between the two names for her? In what ways are names important?
6. Patrice likens her meticulous work at the jewel plant to beading with her mother. In what ways is this similar or not? What’s the difference between work and a job?
7. Why does Patrice love to chop firewood? What does it say that she arranges it in a beautiful pattern?
8. What is Zhaanat’s “deep knowledge”? Why has it been important to protect it and her from outside influences such as boarding school?
9. What is it about Zhaanat’s “unusual hands that frightened some people”?
10. Patrice comes to believe that most people treat the concept of God “in a childish way.” What does she mean? Why might such an approach be limiting or problematic? What is her understanding of the “nameless greatness”?
11. How did Vera—who “always wanted to stay where she could see the birches”—fall victim to such horrible experience? Why might such brutal, misogynistic criminal activity be a lesser priority to authorities? What are the similarities and differences between such criminal sexual activity and Patrice’s job as the Waterjack?
12. What is Wood Mountain like? How is it that he is both a fighter and sensitive and kind to women and Vera’s baby? Why don’t more men combine such strength and protective calm?
13. What does Thomas’ father, Biboon, know that most others do not? What might he mean when he says, “Survival is a changing game”?
14. As Thomas reads resolution 108, meant to terminate the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, he’s struck that “the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language.” What is the intent of such language? In what other contexts is plain, dry language used as a power?
15. Consider the many stereotyped images of “a lovely Indian maiden in flowing buckskin” and others in advertising. What is the power and effect of such images? What role do they play in culture?
16. What does it mean that Thomas is of the “after-the-buffalo-who-are-we-now” generation? What might it mean to “define themselves”? What are the various component parts of one’s identity?
17. What is shame? Why is it likened to “a black sediment…carried around in [the] stomach”? What are the causes of shame for Thomas and others? What is the best way to combat it?
18. How is Millie Cloud a part of or estranged from her tribe? How might she balance her valuable pursuit of higher education with a connection to her family and culture?
19. Thomas chooses to view Arthur V. Watkins, the senator behind the termination bill, as an adversary instead of an enemy. What’s the difference? What does Thomas gain by making this distinction?
20. Why is Patrice’s sexual desire “confused with shame”? In what ways are her desires healthy and responsible?
21. Out walking, Patrice falls into a ravine and decides to take a nap near a hibernating bear? What does this mean to her? How does it affect her after the fact? What does it mean that “bigger ideas were called for”?
22. Thomas explains to Barnes that “we are connected to the way-back people.” What does he mean? What is the value of such deep perspective?
23. In what ways are Patrice and Millie “in the same league”?
24. Why might Millie, as she “lovingly” turns the hand crank of the duplicating machine, grow “happier and happier”?
25. What does it mean that patterns take Millie “into the foundations of meaning”? What is the “place simple, savage, ineffable, and exquisite,” that she retreats to each night?
26. What do Roderick’s consistent appearances mean to Thomas? What effect do they have?
27. What is the role and importance of laughter throughout the burdensome struggles of the novel?
28. What explains Patrice becoming “inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit”? How might this be helpful to her?
29. Consider one of the final images of the novel, Thomas dreaming of muskrats, asking them his name, placing the paper it’s written on in his mouth, and the “bones tipped and staggered, assembling into forms” across the prairies. What do all these powerful images suggest about Thomas and his people?
30. What is important and powerful about Thomas, even occasionally struggling with language, continuing to write at his desk at work?