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cover of Louise Erdrich's novel the night watchman

The Night Watchman

For a long time I had intended to finally read a book by Louise Erdrich, because she is perhaps the most famous Native American writer. Her latest book was published in 2020. The story she tells in The Night Watchman is based on her grandfather’s life. Her fiction uses actual events of the 1950s to draw attention to the precarious situation of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa living in a reservation in North Dakota. When I start reading very thick books – The Nightwatchman with its nearly 500 pages is one of those – I’m often skeptical whether such bulk is really necessary. But I simply devoured this book in two days.

Numerous, likeable characters emerge, showing a warm, supportive community – even if there are everyday conflicts. But mostly the story revolves around Thomas Wazhashk and Patrice Paranteau, who are uncle and niece. Thomas works as a night watchman in a factory, but is also chairperson of the Chippewa Council. When he gets wind of a planned change in the law, which according to the wording is supposed to contribute to the “emancipation” of the Chippewa, but would actually mean the destruction of the community and presumably the ruin of many already impoverished families, he does everything he can to change the minds of the politicians in charge – above all a racist Mormon. Patrice also works at the factory, making ends meet for her family on her meager wages. In addition to financial problems, the family is tormented by the fact that their eldest daughter Vera seems to have disappeared without a trace. Patrice bravely sets out to find her sister and travels to Minnesota, which turns into a dangerous adventure and she doesn’t even find Vera. This second narrative strand is particularly concerned with the role of indigenous women, sexualized violence, and questions about the meaning of love.

Many books that fall on the spectrum of postcolonial literature tell of horrific living situations and oppression. That’s partly true of The Night Watchman, too. But I enjoyed reading this book that centers the strength and the spirit of resistance of an oppressed group. This book gives hope. The protagonists completely won me over and little bits of wisdom invited me to look at the world through different eyes. For example, Patrice‘s mother Zhaanat criticizes the fact that places in the U.S. are no longer named for what happens there – like dreaming, eating, meeting animals – but for people – politicians, priests, researchers (and indeed often male ones). The novel stands for respect for the land and all living things, and expresses a critique of arrogant appropriation (and centering humans).

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