The granddaughter of a Chippewa leader who challenged the U.S. Government’s policies toward Native Americans, Louise Erdrich has long written about the bitter history of twentieth-century American Indian culture. In The Night Watchman (Harper Collins Publishers), she returns to the themes of love and death that have haunted her work.

The Night Watchman, set in a hardscrabble North Dakota reservation during the early 1950s, counts among Erdrich’s most personal and emotional novels. She depicts a community at a crossroads, where strained relationships bring pain and pleasure, and the past is always inserting itself into the present. Change has been coming for a long time.

HISTORICAL STRUGGLE BETWEEN U.S. GOVERNMENT AND NATIVE AMERICANS

Drawn by adventure and job opportunities in the city of Minneapolis, young Native Americans are leaving home only to encounter the ugly underbelly of modern urban life. Meanwhile, the tribal elders fear assimilation and “termination” — a technical term used by politicians and officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, his administration pushed through the “Indian Reorganization Act” with the goal of undoing the harsh assimilation policies and suppression of Indian culture that had been in place for more than 150 years. While life conditions for Native Americans improved slightly as a result of this act, known as the “Indian New Deal,” World War II necessitated budget cuts and the program faded.

By the 1950s, public sentiment had become decidedly anti-Indian and danger reared its head in the form of HRC-108, a bill introduced by a reactionary Utah senator named Arthur V. Watkins.  It would decimate the tightly knit Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa tribe whose survival lies at the heart of The Night Watchman.

“Like the old-timers,” Erdrich writes, the members of the reservation would need to send a delegation to Washington, D.C., in order to defeat the bill.

INDIVIDUALS WORKING WITHIN A POLITICAL STORM

At the center of Erdrich’s most recent novel is Pixie, an intelligent, ambitious teenage girl on the threshold of romantic and sexual discovery, and Thomas, a middle-aged night watchman at the local factory where a workforce of young women hangs on to grueling low-paying jobs.

Pixie is highly distracted by two men who are competing for her love, but she remains focused on retrieving her older sister, Vera, who went to Minneapolis and disappeared. It is feared that Vera has fallen into the hands of criminals, and Pixie sets off alone to find her. Although Pixie returns home without her sister, while in the city she experiences a brief, ugly education in the violent exploitation of women.

Thomas, a strategic thinker whose flawless penmanship is a vestige of his years at an Indian boarding school, takes up the charge against HRC-108. Haunted by the death of a childhood friend and loved dearly by his wife and six children, Thomas organizes opposition to the bill by raising money, circulating a petition and arranging a meeting for himself and his comrades with Senator Watkins and Congressional bureaucrats.

While Pixie and Thomas pursue their goals, the government’s persecution of Native Americans casts a long shadow. Erdrich evokes a trail of broken treaties that should have endured “as long as the grass grows and the river flows.”

 ERDRICH’S BAND OF UNFORGETTABLE PERSONALITIES

A compelling cast of characters — including a semi-hibernating bear and a psychic dog named Edith — populate The Night Watchman.

There is Pixie’s mother Zhaanet, finally rid of an abusive alcoholic husband, who guards tradition and dispenses healing knowledge. There is Millie Cloud, a University of Minnesota undergraduate whose economic study of the Turtle Mountain Band helps beat back the House bill. Ultimately, Millie will switch her major from statistics to anthropology, determined to preserve the mysterious world where Zhaanet’s mysteries prevail.

Among many other unforgettable personalities, Erdrich conjures the men and women who once inhabited the land. The Night Watchman is a tribute to their memory.

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Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.