Based on the writer’s grandfather, Thomas Wazhashk is the watchman of the title as well as a farmer and the head of the tribal council of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, located in North Dakota. The year is 1953 and the tribe is in serious trouble. Under the guise of “integrating” the tribe into American society, a Senator from Utah is pushing a bill that will terminate the reservation Thomas, his family, and his friends all live on. Thomas has been spending his night shifts composing letters to friendlier congressmen in the hopes of saving their land.
Meanwhile, his young relative Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau has been dealing with a number of crises on the homefront. Her father is an unreliable drunkard who only returns home when he needs money, leaving Pixie to support her mother and brother on her meager wages from the same jewel bearing factory her uncle Thomas guards at night. Most pressingly, Patrice’s older sister Vera has been out of touch since relocating to the Twin Cities, and both Patrice and her mother are convinced that something terrible has befallen her because of their troubled dreams.
While Thomas and Patrice are the main protagonists, Erdrich takes a circuitous rout telling her story. We spend time inside the heads of many characters living on the reservation, such as horse trainer Louis Pipestone, boxer Wood Mountain, white schoolteacher Hay Stack Barnes, two Mormon missionaries struggling to make inroads in the community, and even the ghost of Thomas old-school friend Roderick.
Erdrich is a confident storyteller, clearly comfortable wielding such a large cast of characters. Still, the meandering plot can get frustrating at times. Mysteries crop up and are ignored for long stretches. Intriguing side characters disappear completely from the narrative. Erdrich takes a true to life approach to the story, meaning the novel comes to only a partial conclusion.
The Night Watchman tells an important story that has largely been forgotten by history, and it does so with memorable characters and superb prose, making it a worthwhile read in spite of any concerns about plotting.