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The Night Watchman

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Member Reviews

Erdrich has written some powerful novels. She has a very interesting and readable style, well-suited to her subject matter. It does feel like she needs to switch things up more.
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This was good but didn’t necessarily grab me. I’m glad I read it and have a few library patrons in mind to recommend it to. I will purchase the title for my library.
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Loved this book! So well written and lives up to the hype! It took me a few chapters to get into the story but once it hooked me I was hooked to the end!
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The Night Watchman came in a year when we're talking more than ever about the inalienable rights of marginalized communities, about the nuances of how poverty, racism, sexism, and so much more can come together to create a complex chain of injustices. Erdrich's novels have undoubtedly been addressing this concerns on some level for many years, but this work is particularly poignant.

Thomas and Patrice are endearing characters, ones who care deeply about their community and protecting it from dissolution. Erdrich does an incredible job with imbuing them with leap-of-the-page realness, and I was absolutely entranced by their connection to their heritage and their conviction to their values. Erdrich has proven once again that it is possible to talk about very real challenges faced by indigenous folks, such as lack of education services, healthcare, and substance abuse, without debasing an entire group of people (of course, (indigenous folks have always known this, but white folks could learn a thing or two).

The Night Watchman is a story crafted with care, love, and a healthy dose of righteous indignation. It's the story of a people who refuse to back down, regardless of how much has already been taken from them. It is persistent and biting but also kind and full of heart. A 2020 fiction must read.
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Thank you to HarperCollins and NetGalley for the early digital copy in exchange for an honest review!

Was this a generous rating? Probably. There is so much that happens in this book, some of it being completely weird, that I almost couldn't keep up. There were parts that kept me interested enough to give this three stars. The writing style also saved it. I understand that it's based on Erdrich's grandfather, and that's not what I'm basing this review on. It seems he lived an interesting life, and that's where I'll stop. This was long and boring, but I could see how a lot of readers would like it. There is some wisdom thrown around in the 450 pages. Nothing that really stuck with me though. If you want to give it a try, then I support your decision.
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Excellent historical fiction based on the author's Grandfather's letters written during the 1953 government effort to terminate the Chippewa tribe. Thomas Wazhahk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to interpret the “emancipation” bill which will be discussed on the floor of the US Congress. The main goal of the bill is to terminate the rights of native Americans to their land. Discrimination, justice and injustice, poverty and personal challenges create a character and theme driven plot, and leaves the reader with the one realization that the United States has never stopped it's practice of white supremacy.
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Erdrich's words bring an intimate, easy beauty to the lives of the Chippewas living at the Turtle Mountain Reservation. The love, joy, struggles, and all the little moments in between make Thomas, Patrice, and all the other Turtle Mountain residents into characters that stick with you, that feel so very real. I was anxious and nervous as Patrice just barely scratched the surface of human trafficking, especially of Indigenous women. I felt like I was ringside during Wood Mountain's boxing match. And I was in awe as Thomas led the fight against the Termination bill. Because that is, on the surface, the main conflict, based on the very real H.R. 7316: Termination of Federal Supervision over Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Put forth by Senator Watkins in 1954, it threatened to end federal treaties and effective dissolve all tribal lands and support.

This story is not just about fighting Termination, though learning about that history was absolutely eye-opening. This story, these characters, are all finding and fighting for their place, for their identity and sense of belonging. It is beautiful and peaceful.

In the introduction and afterword, Erdrich illuminates this story even further. Thomas is based on the very real tribal Chairman Patrick Gourneau, Erdrich's grandfather. She also narrates the audiobook, which I listened to. Listening to Erdrich reading was everything, especially to hear the Chippewa words spoken out loud from her as well.
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3.5. stars. This story with its many threads took longer than usual to pull me in. Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors, so I stuck with it and was glad that I did. Unfortunately, many of the issues the Indians were dealing with in 1954 are still present today.
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Great book!  Loved the characters and the story was engaging.  Already loved Louise Erdrich!  Will be recommending this, particularly as a book club read.
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I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now. 

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again. 

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned. 

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that their children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead, 

“She was the first person in the family to have a job. Not a trapping, hunting, or berry-gathering job, but a white people job. In the next town. Her mother said nothing but implied that she was grateful. Pokey had this year’s school shoes. Vera had a plaid dress, a Toni home permanent, white anklets, for her trip to Minneapolis. And Patrice was putting a bit of every paycheck away in order to follow Vera, who had maybe disappeared.” 

The point of view shifts between Patrice; a local boy turned boxer, Wood Mountain; Haystack Barnes, the white math teacher and boxing coach; and Thomas, Patrice’s uncle, who is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant. Thomas is modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, and the author’s notes at the end mention that his struggle to save the Chippewa land made writing this book an emotional experience.  

As the story opens, Patrice is preparing to track down her sister, who is rumored to have had a baby in Minneapolis, and Thomas is organizing a group of Chippewa to attend the hearings in Washington, D.C. The Feds have sent a letter to the tribe suggesting that since they were clearly successful, they would surely no longer require government aid or protection. Their land would be absorbed by the U.S. government and then sold to private buyers; its current residents would be relocated to cities where they could get work. And it’s a measure of exactly how clueless the average American was about the Chippewas’ plight that Barnes, who lived and worked among them, said, “I don’t understand why it’s so bad. It sounds like you get to be regular Americans.” 

There are other points of view as well; the most memorable are the Mormon missionaries that have drawn the short straw and been sent to minister to the “Lamanites.” This religion holds that the inferiority of American Indians is revealed holy truth; only by converting can they be salvaged, and when that happens, the new converts will slowly become whiter. Our two missionaries dislike each other profoundly, which is unfortunate since they may only separate from one another to use the toilet. When the main story becomes intense and at times, very sad, in will pop the missionaries and before I know it, I am laughing out loud.  In addition, I admire the way the strong female characters are developed. 

There are three primary threads to follow: what Patrice decides to do with her future; whether Vera will be found; and whether the Chippewa of Turtle Mountain will lose their land. All are handled with the mastery one might expect from an iconic author. 

Don’t be the idiot that I was. Get this book and read it now.
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Like her novel LaRose, Erdrich has written another major Anerican novel. Her characterizations are as skillful as ever, and her ability to showcase the Ojibwe world in such lucid and unforgettable moments reflects the genius of her raw storytelling. She fuses humor and tragic occasions like no other American novelist.  It is another wholly original feat.
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Another good one from Louise Erdrich. It's  about family; the life and death, the love and hate of an Ojibwa family during an oppressed  time. Told in honor of her grandfather who worked at the watch factory. As always, her writing is just fun to read.
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As Erdrich says in her afterword, “If you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”  Based on her grandfather, this is the story of a Chippewa man who used his boarding school education to fight for the rights of his people. As in other Erdrich stories there is a central story but its also filled with stories of others. For example, Pixie, who is related to Thomas, the night watchman is searching for her sister who was abducted and left her baby alone in a drug filled home. Erdrich shows her skill in weaving an entire solar system of slightly wacky characters among the pages of her book.
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THE NIGHT WATCHMAN by Louise Erdrich is the most recently published novel by this prolific, award-winning author. Erdich based this story in part on her own grandfather's fight against Termination, involving changes to treaties (originally set in place for "as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow") and the status of Native Americans in the early 1950s.  The title character is Thomas who muses, "every so often, the government remembered about Indians.  And when they did, they always tried to solve Indians ... by getting rid of us." Later, Erdrich writes, "the author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of lofty words around this bill -- emancipation, freedom, equality, success – that disguised its truth: termination. Termination. Missing only the prefix. The ex."

A second story line involves Patrice/Pixie, a fictional character who works at the local plant, is related to Thomas, and travels to the city to look for her missing sister. She is full of fortitude and Erdrich's writing is again poignant, descriptive, and evocative.  Here are just a few brief examples:  "... the train was moving at a smooth, delicious, rocking speed. Patrice smiled, looking at the houses, streets, people, whisking away behind her as the train rolled along at a magnificent gait. Nobody had ever, ever described to her how freeing it felt to be riding on a train."  And, "She gave him a look that would have shaved his face if he'd had whiskers."

Other aspects of Erdrich's latest novel concern the sexual exploitation of Native American women and also the role of Christian versus tribal religion (with missionaries, visions and superstitions), either of these topics may make some readers uncomfortable. Also, the novel, while beautifully written, is difficult to follow at times as many characters have multiple names and the perspective shifts frequently.  The Boston Globe says, "Erdrich is a writer of splendid complications and digressions;" that is certainly evident in THE NIGHT WATCHMAN which received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Library Journal.
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Louise Erdrich is one of the unsung heroes  American Literature. The Night Watchman gives readers the best of her work - rich, lyrical prose giving account of the historical and ongoing struggles of Native peoples. The characters are captivating and memorable, the storylines are poignant, and the seamless blending of everyday and mystical elements adds an authenticity to the account that is quintessential Erdrich. Another masterpiece.
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Publlished by Harper on March 3, 2020

The Night Watchman is inspired by Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, who served as chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee in the 1950s. Erdrich’s focus is upon a congressional attempt to terminate the Turtle Mountain Band in 1954, one of many shameful episodes in America’s history of broken promises. The government wanted to break up the reservation so it could “relocate” Indians, a blatant land grab by white people at the expense of Indians who farmed the miserable land that the government agreed would be theirs forever.

As is customary in an Erdrich novel, her story showcases Indians who go about their business, faintly amused by the ways of white people. The Indians maintain their culture and dignity as they make the best lives they can. A key character is Thomas, who farms and works as a night watchman, where he sometimes chats with the ghost of a boy who was his friend before he died. Thomas leads a delegation of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa to Washington in the hope that they can educate Congress about their mistaken claim that the Turtle Mountain Band is self-sustaining and no longer needs government assistance.

The delegation needs to cover travel expenses, so Wood Mountain participates in a fund-raising boxing match against his rival. Wood Mountain is sweet on Patrice, a virgin who is curious about sex but can’t decide whether she should try it with Wood Mountain or one of the other men in the tribe. Patrice is smart and independent, representing the future of Native American women as they blend the best of native and non-native cultures.

Another key woman is Millie, who has already left the tribe to pursue an education. Millie authored an economic study of reservation life. Thomas wants her to present the study to Congress in support of the tribe’s objection to termination. Millie is shy, but leans on Patrice to help her overcome her fear.

A couple of Mormons add comic relief as they try to persuade the Chippewa to abandon Catholicism or their native religion and embrace what they refer to as the only religion that originated in America. Thomas, whose religious beliefs were passed down from Native Americans long before the land came to be called America, knows better. The Mormons make it their business to lecture others about sin until temptation leads them to pray “to bear the intolerable fire of life.”

Dark comedy comes from Patrice’s trip to the Twin Cities to look for Vera. She takes a job as an underwater performer, sort of like a mermaid except her costume is a blue ox. That job turns out to be dangerous in many ways, but she comes home with Vera’s baby, to whom Wood Mountain is instantly attached. What happens to Vera isn’t amusing at all, but she proves to be another strong, resilient woman.

The novel confronts the stereotypes and prejudices that led to the devastating termination and relocation of tribes during the 1950s. The congressional efforts drove some tribes to extinction. In Erdrich’s novel, as in history, Senator Watkins questions the morality and virtue of Indians, an ironic position for a man who wants to break a sacred promise that the government made to the tribe. Patrice notes that white people see Indians as savages, yet she sees more violence in Washington and in the Twin Cities than she ever saw on the reservation.

Erdrich’s novels have long confronted prejudice by telling personal, relatable stories about love and loss, laughter and sadness, all the qualities that humans share regardless of their birthplace or skin color. At the same time, her novels refuse to stereotype either whites or Indians. A selfless white man, for example, helps Vera in her time of need. Her strongest characters exemplify how all humans should treat one another.

Erdrich gives depth to a varying cast of characters and encourages readers to understand their fears, hopes, pain, and joy. The story is sweet and sad and funny. It reflects a reverence for nature, respect for ancestral history, and gratitude for a shared place on the Earth. The ending ties up all the plot threads in ways that are heartwarming without becoming saccharine.

RECOMMENDED
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Based on real events and letters/memoirs written by the author's grandfather, Erdrich tells the story of the 1953 bill that would have terminated the rights of several tribes under the guise of assimilation. In episodes that focus on various tribal members we take a peek inside reservation life in 1953 America. Each character is fully drawn and Erdrich's writing pulls the reader into the story. I could not put this book down waiting anxiously to see what happens to Vera, Pixie, Thomas, and the rest. 

Along with Sherman Alexie, I think Erdrich is one of the best contemporary writers. Their focus on Native Americans and life on the reservation brings both the plight of Native peoples and their "ordinary" lives into the public consciousness. The Night Watchman is the perfect blend of everyday life, political controversy, and mythical/magical/spiritual tales and beliefs. By the end, I believed in the signs and ghostly appearances that guided Thomas' actions. I really loved this book!

One caution --  There are multiple references to Mormon theology and teachings about Native Americans and references to the way in which church teachings may have influenced the Senator to sponsor the termination bill.. From what I can tell, it's all based on facts & church teachings at the time, but some passages may be quite offensive to LDS members sensitive to criticism.
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Classic Louise Erdrich here. Fans of hers won't be disappointed. Her writing is evocative and characters are memorable. Readers who don't know very much about indigenous history will learn a lot about the ways the US government found to disenfranchise indigenous people, including this little-known episode. Erdrich's family ties to the story add authenticity.
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The year is 1953, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa is yet again faced with termination. This time in the form of a United States Senator determined to use legal-speak and government documents to disband their community and seize their last remaining land. Thomas, a tribal leader, scrambles to bring together the resources to protect his people while fighting exhaustion as his graveyard-shift job and daytime duties to his people take a grave toll on his health. Meanwhile, Patrice, a young woman of the Band, struggles to support her family, save her missing sister, and find her place in the world.

In this magnificent work of historical fiction and magical realism, Louise Erdrich takes us back in time to relive an all but forgotten attempt to violate the treaties with Native Americans and seize from them what is rightfully theirs in the guise of helping them. Along the way, she, as ever, paints beautifully true portraits of the human spirit and experience. The Night Watchman is yet another brilliant addition to Louise Erdrich's already impressive oeuvre.

I was fortunate to receive a complimentary advanced copy of this book via a NetGalley giveaway. Many thanks to all involved in providing me with this opportunity.
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This is the lyrical, beautifully written saga of Pixie and the titular night watchman, Thomas, both members of a Native American tribe in North Dakota and employed at a local jewelry factory.

Pixie is worried about her sister, Vera, who left for a better life, and struggles with living with her alcoholic father, while Thomas is called to testify before congress regarding the relocation act. Slowly, Pixie leaves her job and life behind in search of her sister, and Thomas becomes a voice for his tribe.

This was a moving, beautifully written book, and I was so sad during so much of the reading. Based on actual historical events, this book is moving for all Americans, and should be read and studied for a realistic picture of an American culture too often not represented in literature. 

This is a great book.
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