Louise Erdrich’s prolific output has done nothing to water down the quality of her writing. If anything, after three decades of storytelling, she knows her groove and tells her tales in an assured, leisurely fashion. In this way, her latest novel is less a tightly plotted story than a recounting of an episode in American history with character sketches filled in along the way.
Certain themes can be relied upon throughout Erdrich’s body of work, most notably the injustice handed out to Native American tribes by the white powers that be. The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s on North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation, is no exception. It’s based on the extraordinary story of the author’s grandfather, Thomas Wazhushk, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., where he took on Congress in 1953. Pixie Paranteau is Wazhushk’s niece. She takes a leave of absence at her job at the Jewel Bearing Plant to search for her sister, Vera, who was last seen in Minneapolis. Though she doesn’t find her sister, she finds love in the arms of a promising young boxer named Wood Mountain, himself the victim of racism in the ring. (When he is winning a round against a white fighter, the bell rings 15 seconds early.)
Pixie, her uncle Thomas, grad student Millie Cloud and other Turtle Mountain inhabitants have a common enemy in Senator Arthur V. Watkins, who is bent on reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. If Watkins wins his election, it would mean the end of the Turtle Mountain community and tribes living on reservations throughout the U.S. Erdrich weaves an element of the supernatural throughout these events, with Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returning as a ghost.
The Night Watchman serves as a timely reminder that history seems to have a habit of repeating itself.