The chapters are short and often shift their setting and narrative perspective quickly to survey the book’s many characters. These cadences – the quick rise and fall and rise again – are typical of Erdrich, as seen, for example, in her beautiful short story “The Red Convertible” (1984), which takes place across multiple locations and years and also references the jewel bearing plant. Form mirrors content in The Night Watchman: from addiction to racism to sexual assault and land dispossession, the indignities of Native life pile up.
Erdrich can maintain this level of intensity with apparent ease. Most remarkable is her ability to weave together separate narrative strands into rich and absorbing wholes. In some of her novels – Love Medicine (1984), say, or The Plague of Doves (2008) – the imbrication can require quite hard work on the part of the reader. In The Night Watchman, warp and weft can be followed with ease. In the afterword that concludes it, Erdrich remarks that the Trump administration has ‘recently brought back the termination era by seeking to terminate the Wampanoag’, the tribe who welcomed the Pilgrims to America and first celebrated Thanksgiving with them.
The Night Watchman (Corsair £20), set in the 1950s, focuses on two people in the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. The night watchman of the title orchestrates a campaign against government plans that threaten the reservation’s future. His story, although based on that of Erdrich’s grandfather, is markedly less vivid than that of the entirely fictional “Pixie” Paranteau, a 19-year-old who experiences what life outside Turtle Mountain can be like when she travels to Minneapolis in search of her missing sister, lost to drugs and sexual exploitation.
This is Erdrich’s 17th novel and shares many of the themes of the previous one, the brilliantly dystopian Future Home of the Living God, as well as with LaRose, which spools out from an individual tragedy to a broad consideration of American culture. But perhaps because of its intensely personal origins, this book feels particularly special, taking those elements that we expect from Erdrich — beautiful prose, exquisite depiction of the natural world, powerful emotion — and building them into something exceptional. If you haven’t read her before, The Night Watchman is a superb introduction to the work of one of America’s most important living novelists.
There are two plotlines — Thomas’s fight and the story of a young Chippewa woman named Patrice. This opinionated, strong-minded character does not want a life of domestic drudgery. When her sister Vera goes missing in the city Patrice sets off to find her. The city is full of dangers for a young Native American woman, even one who considers herself tough. She encounters fellow Native Americans attempting to survive on the border between two very different worlds.