The Night Watchman
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich, is set in 1953 on the Turtle Mountain Indian reservation in North Dakota. Life is not easy for Indians living in modern-day America. They are barely allowed the status of second-class citizens. They live in poverty and many of them are ignorant and uneducated.
The federal government, in its infinite wisdom, is on the verge of canceling the Turtle Mountain reservation, which means the lands will be confiscated and the Indians will lose their homes. Functions currently handled by the federal government will be turned over to state government. Will it do any good for a group of Turtle Mountain Indians to go to Washington, D.C., to plead their case? Don’t count on it.
Patrice Paranteau (nicknamed “Pixie”) is the main character in The Night Watchman. She is about twenty and has lived her whole life on the reservation. Her father is a hopeless drunk. Pixie lives with her mother, her brother and her sister. She works in a jewel-bearing plant that employs mostly women. She and her family are dependent on the money she makes at the plant, even though it isn’t very much. She works very hard and is a reliable employee. She is smart and wants to go to college and make something more of her life than the reservation has to offer.
Pixie has never had sexual relations with a man and is curious. She has two possible men in mind, but doesn’t like either one of them very much. One is an Indian, a boxer, and the other is a blond teacher. Will she succumb to either one of the steamy lotharios? In the meantime, a female coworker fills Pixie in on what to except when the moment finally arrives.
Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the plant. He has a wife named Rose and a large family. He is a good, steady, reliable man. He is involved in Indian affairs, trying to make a better life for his people.
In a subplot involving Pixie’s family, her sister, Vera, has strayed from her family and her home. She has found her way to the big city, Minneapolis, and is being ill-used by men. Even worse, she is a drug addict. Pixie arranges to get leave from her job and goes to the city looking for her sister. She doesn’t find her but finds clues about where she might be. She does, however, find Vera’s baby and takes him back home with her. Pixie always hopes that Vera will come back to the reservation on her own, but who can say what a drug-addicted whore will do?
The Night Watchman has a gallery of interesting characters and offers a glimpse of life on an Indian reservation in the middle of the twentieth century. As hard as life is for them, the characters face it with determination and a “never-say-die” optimism. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for 2o21.
Copyright 2023 by Allen Kopp