The Nightwatchman



The Night watchman by Louise Erdrich

This Pulitzer Prize winning book tells the story of Pixie Paranteau, a young indigenous woman living on an Indian reservation in North Dakota who insisted that everyone call her Patrice, but very one called her Pixie.  Even her friend Valentine Blue, who was “pretty as a sunset,” would not call her what she wanted. As so often in life, people don’t get to choose much about their own lives. That is particularly true about Indians, as indigenous people are still called in the US. To make such choices they must be very determined. That applies to young people and old people alike.


Thomas Wazhashk was a nightwatchman at the jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Indian reservation in North Dakota. He was also a Chippewa council member who was given the task of trying to understand the “Emancipation Act” that was being considered by the United States Congress in 1953. As happens so often in politics, the name of that legislation is badly misleading. It is not about granting them freedom, it is about reneging on treaty obligations and removing the rights of the Indians to their land and their identity. Again, freedom is hard to come by. Others are deciding what is good for them. A Senator from Utah, a Mormon, discussing, the proposed bill was “filling the air with sanctimony.’


One day Thomas was beset by the appearance of two young men approaching his house and wearing white shirts and black pants—the unmistakeable uniform of missionaries who would want to tell Thomas what to do. One of the men asked Thomas if he ever wondered why he was there? Thomas said no, because I know. Don’t you he asked?  This deflected the young men. They wanted to tell him why he was there. Instead, Thomas asked them why the Mormon Senator wanted to do away with Indians.  He said he wanted to “terminate” them. The Mormon men wanted him to read their sacred book. The men were so ignorant they believed their religion was the only religion that originated in America.  But Thomas politely told them he had a religion and wasn’t interested in a new one. The two men walked away “full of mystifying purpose.”


Patrice learned religion from her mother Zhaanat. Whereas the Senator from Utah wanted to divide the people from each other and from their land and the creatures on it, she refused to see divisions. She instead saw connections. “Zhaanat’s thinking was based on treating everything around her with great care.” Why would people with such a religious world view need Mormons to tell them why they were there and what they should do? Later Louis told them “We are thankful for our place in the world, but we don’t worship nobody higher than…” as he gestured out the window at the dimming sky.”

Bu the heart of the novel is a love story or really 2 or 3 love stories involving 4 couples. This required contradictory feelings, but what was wrong with that? Millie, another friend, of Patrice understood that one explanation did not rule out anything else. The northern lights could be spirits and also electrons. After all, “mathematics was a rigorous form of madness.” So a man could love two women and a women could reject one man and lose another. Emancipation could be termination. These are just some of the issues explored in the novel by a very fine writer.

I recommend you read this book.

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