Louise Erdrich's 2002 novel "The Night Watchman" explores life among the Chippewa Indians on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in northern North Dakota in the 1950s.
The story follows the lives of many people living on the reservation.
Patrice is an intelligent, attractive teenage Chippewa girl. Her alcoholic father is mostly absent, and her sister Velma is missing after moving to the Twin Cities and giving birth to a son.
Thomas Wazhask is The Night Watchman of the story's title. He serves as the tribal leader during the day and holds a night job at a local factory. His lack of sleep causes him to hallucinate. Some of his hallucinations appear prophetic - visions of the lost Velma and conversations with Roderick, a boy who died when disciplined while they were at boarding school years earlier.
At the time of the story, Senator Arthur V. Watkins introduces House Concurrent Resolution 108 bill, which proposes to force Native Americans off the reservation and strip them of their ability to govern themselves. If enacted, this resolution would break every treaty made with every tribe in the United States.
Patrice sets out to find her missing sister while Thomas organizes a defense against the Congressional Bill.
The story concerns the lives and trials of those on the reservation. The point of view shifts between the characters, and we learn of their loves and jobs and their struggles with money, and their relationships - all the things that make them real in the readers' eyes. This realness makes the cold logic of Watkins all the more harsh.
Erdrich slowly uncovers layers of the story by recalling past events, then revealing details of those events later. She never reveals some things, such as whether the ghost or Chippewa magic or Thomas's visions are real.
Erdrich does an excellent job of bringing these characters to life and forcing the reader to feel for them, even if we have no experience living as second-class citizens or living in poverty, or fighting the might of the US Government. She incorporates the impending threat of the Termination as a way of disrupting the lives of the tribespeople.
The author based the novel on actual events. Thomas is a fictionalized version of the author's grandfather, and she patterned many of the characters after his contemporaries. The Congressional Resolution was real, as was Senator Watkins.
"The Night Watchman" is a coming-of-age story that explores family, gender, poverty, sex, and how governments affected the lives of Native Americans. It contrasts life on a reservation, where the people strive to maintain their traditional ways, with the coldness of the cities, where their tradition stands no chance.