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The Night Watchman is a powerful historical novel

A review by Alan Vaughn



This powerful novel is based on a true story and chronicles a single episode in the long struggle between Native Americans and the federal government that dominated and oppressed them for generations. The characters Erdrich creates in this novel are based on her own family, specifically her grandfather and his friends and peers. This historical basis adds to the richness of Erdrich’s natural talent as she recreates a pivotal period in her grandfather’s life when he helped lead a fight against the legal termination of their tribe. Capturing the tone of 1950s, Erdrich reveals how fraught life was on the reservations as they still seek a place to live and perhaps thrive.


Detailing the abject poverty present on the reservations, Erdrich also manages to illustrate the humanity of these people as they struggle merely to survive. Assimilated into a lifestyle that is completely alien to their ancestral way of being and left with only a bare minimum of support from the government and people who have tried again and again to force them to abandon age-old traditions and practices. Yet while some attend the boarding schools that seek in to erase and destroy this history others retain all they can of their own language and religion. This has created a mixed society on the reservations, where and older generation is both revered and sometimes reviled for their fading knowledge. A knowledge that offers little help in surviving the world that is always encroaching on their shrinking lands.


Set against this backdrop we are introduced to two members of the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa, Patrice and Thomas. Patrice is a young woman who is focused on doing whatever she can to better herself and her family and Thomas is her uncle, a tribal elder who loves his people and wants to preserve their traditions while also preserving their well-being. While he loves the old ways he also knows from his days in boarding school what values the authorities prize and seek to instill in the remaining Native American tribes. To this end, he has helped get a jewel bearing plant built in their community in the hope that his people can pull themselves out of poverty and closer to equal standing with the white community.


However, all of Thomas’s efforts are severely put to the test when a federal bill is proposed that seeks to reverse all previous treaties with Native tribes and no longer offer them any sort of federal recognition or status. Without this and the trickle of funds diverted for their maintenance through the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) there is little to no chance of surviving on what’s left of their lands. Instead they will be forced to move to the cities where they all too often fall prey to the criminal underworld as Patrice learns to her sorrow.


This book is available in ebook format from both Overdrive and Cloud Library and in audiobook from RB Digital. I believe that this books ranks up there with other classics in Native American literature such as “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko or “House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday (both of which are also available in ebook format from Cloud Library and audiobook from RB Digital).

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