national Arts Festival Banner

Wednesday, December 22, 2021


“The Night Watchman” is a hugely impressive novel. – (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

Published last year, Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman is based on real events which involved the author’s family – specifically her grandfather. Here he is fictionalised as Thomas Wazhashk, night watchman in a factory and a member of the Chippewa Council in the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. The year is 1953, and the government of the United States is proposing to “terminate” the rights of native Americans to what little land they still possess on the reservations, pretending that they are doing them a favour, incorporating them into mainstream America.

The novel’s main strand is what Thomas describes as “the struggle to remain a problem. To not be solved”. But it is also the portrait of a living community, full of diverse characters and faced with issues both personal and communal.

One of the most appealing characters is Thomas’s niece, Pixie – or Patrice as she likes to be called. She works in the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, drilling slivers of gems to earn at least some money for her family. Her sister Vera has left the reservation for what she hopes will be a more glamorous life in the city, but she has disappeared, and Patrice’s efforts to find her are doomed to horror.

Erdrich introduces plenty of humour in the day to day activities of the community. A pair of Mormon missionaries, determined to convert the “Indians” (a term now frowned on but used by the people themselves) and turn them paler, come to the area and the mutual incomprehension and the idiocy of the would-be converters offers plenty of light relief. As do many of the activities of the participants.

As Erdrich builds her picture, and takes Thomas and others to Washington to plead their case, the reader is drawn into the myriad lives of the people, their beliefs, their hopes and their fears. The chapters are short, the writing is lyrical and the novel is intensely readable, but repays close attention. You come to care intensely about the characters, and the author’s afterword, which tells of the outcome of the actual fight for the rights of the Chippewa people, makes for a very satisfying end. The Night Watchman is a hugely impressive novel. - Margaret von Klemperer

The Night Watchman is published by Corsair - ISBN 10: 147215536X