Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and based on the life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, this novel—set in 1953—explores the Chippewa community of Turtle Mountain Reservation: Thomas Wazhashk, the titular night watchman of the local jewel bearing plant and Chippewa Council member, seeks justice for his tribe in Congress, while Patrice struggles to support her impoverished family and search for her missing older sister.
In this season of literary wildfires, when cultural borrowings have unleashed protests that have shaken the publishing industry, the issue of authenticity is paramount. Erdrich retakes the lead by offering the reader the gifts of love and richness that only a deeply connected writer can provide. You never doubt these are her people. The author...delivers a magisterial epic that brings her power of witness to every page. High drama, low comedy, ghost stories, mystical visions, family and tribal lore — wed to a surprising outbreak of enthusiasm for boxing matches — mix with political fervor and a terrifying undercurrent of predation and violence against women. For 450 pages, we are grateful to be allowed into this world ... I walked away from the Turtle Mountain clan feeling deeply moved, missing these characters as if they were real people known to me. In this era of modern termination assailing us, the book feels like a call to arms. A call to humanity. A banquet prepared for us by hungry people.
Erdrich’s career has been an act of resistance against racism — the hateful and the sentimental varieties — and the implacable force of white America’s ignorance. In one powerful book after another, she has carved Indians’ lives, histories and stories back into our national literature, a canon once determined to wipe them away ... The Night Watchman is more overtly political...but it’s a political novel reconceived as only Erdrich could ... As usual, modern realism and Native spirituality mingle harmoniously in Erdrich’s pages without calling either into question ... This tapestry of stories is a signature of Erdrich’s literary craft, but she does it so beautifully that it’s tempting to forget how remarkable it is. Chapter by chapter, we encounter characters interrelated but traveling along their own paths ... This narrator’s vision is...capacious, reaching out across a whole community in tender conversation with itself. Expecting to follow the linear trajectory of a mystery, we discover in Erdrich’s fiction something more organic, more humane.
The Night Watchman is indeed historical, thoroughly researched, rich with cultural and topical detail. However, what engages the reader most deeply are Erdrich’s characters: people, ghosts, even animals ... The author’s narrative voice has been compared to Steinbeck. Taking into account her entire body of work, the comparison seems apt. Here, The Grapes of Wrath comes particularly to mind as The Night Watchman is a resonant saga of Thomas’ family and friends, representatives of the marginalized, vulnerable community ... The characters, both major and minor, all matter ... Great care is exactly what Erdrich shows for everybody in the novel. Each character — sympathetic and unsympathetic alike — is rendered in the round with attention and respect ... Both the story of the tribe and the story of the individual family plumb grim history and circumstances, but the novel is neither grim nor a lament. Rather, it is a tale of resistance, courage, and love prevailing against the odds ... Some readers may question such optimism and hope and doubt the tentative, nuanced resolutions achieved by the tribe and Thomas’ family. But any reader in this present, dark winter of 2020 open to reminders of what a few good people can do will find The Night Watchman bracing and timely.