Review by Kerry
Erdrich is a much-awarded American Indian writer from Minnesota whose novels often explore her first nation heritage. In her latest and Pulitzer Prize winning book she draws on her grandfather’s letters to create a story of dignity and courage in the face of betrayal.
In 1953 a bill was introduced to terminate nation-to-nation treaties, effectively removing all land rights and allowing the forced relocation of families from tribal reservations. Deeply troubled by the proposed bill Thomas Wazhushk uses his evenings as the night watchman at a local factory to draft a response and organise a delegation to travel to Washington to fight against termination. Discrimination, segregation, suppression and poverty form the backdrop to the lives of the Chippewa, of which Thomas is a respected tribal chairman. It is Thomas who introduces us to the families who work, live, love and die within this sensitively drawn community. We also meet those who are lost and mourned and those who aren’t. These are the people he is fighting for and Erdrich renders them with such honesty and love I felt I was a part of their lives and cared desperately for them.
Language drives this novel and makes it such a pleasure to read. Government documents bristle with duplicitous official language used to camouflage, freeing is really abandonment, and improving masks robbing them of identity; in counterpoint its barbs are made all the more insidious by the language of the Chippewa which flows, simple and evocative. Equally evocative are the visions that pepper the story adding yet another layer of emotional complexity to an already beautifully drawn history.
Rich and heroic The Night Watchman will sit with you long after you close the last page.