120 pages 4 hours read

Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


The Night Watchman, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is Louise Erdrich’s 17th novel. It is set in 1953 on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation in 1953 and details the fight against House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill which sought to end tribal sovereignty.

This study guide uses the 2020 edition of the book published by HarperCollins.

Plot Summary

The novel takes place in 1953. Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman for the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant and the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (he is also based on Erdrich’s real grandfather). At work, he periodically sees the ghost of Roderick, his former classmate at Fort Totten, a boarding school. Roderick died of tuberculosis after a brutal punishment in the boarding school.

Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau also works for the plant; she assembles jewel bearings. She is the main income provider for her family. Patrice’s father, Pogo, is a person with alcoholism; Pokey is her younger brother; Zhaanat is her mother, who is seen as the keeper of knowledge for their community; and Vera is her sister, who has disappeared after moving to the Twin Cities.

In the early chapters of the novel, Thomas learns about House Concurrent Resolution 108, which seeks to “emancipate” the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from the federal government. This means ending the financial support that the government provides, which has been crucial in helping the community. Thomas learns that the bill is sponsored by Senator Arthur V. Watkins from Utah and that Watkins is a Mormon. Haunted by the memory of boarding school and his friend Roderick’s death, he sets to work to stop the bill.

Barnes is Pokey’s math teacher and boxing coach. He has a crush on Patrice. He is also the coach for Wood Mountain, who has a fight with Joe “Wobble” Wobleszynski. Aboard the train on the way to Minneapolis to search for Vera, Patrice runs into Wood Mountain, and their friendship begins to grow.

When Patrice arrives in Minneapolis, she is kidnapped and taken to Log Jam 26, a Paul Bunyan-themed bar that has a nightly “waterjack” show in which a woman dressed as Bunyan’s companion Babe (a blue ox) swims in a large tank. Coerced by the owner, Patrice takes the job. She also goes to a couple of addresses she’d been given for Vera. At one, she finds a dog chained up and near death. Patrice eventually realizes that Vera was likely locked up there. Wood Mountain helps her escape from Jack; together, they find Vera’s baby but not Vera. They go home to the reservation.

The Turtle Mountain tribal committee holds a hearing to voice their objection to the Termination Bill. The tribal members take a vote, which will be conveyed to Congress. There are 47 votes against the bill and zero for it.

Patrice tells Thomas what happened to Vera, and it plagues him when he goes to work. He locks himself out of the factory in the cold and starts to worry he’ll freeze to death. He sees a group of spirits who dance with him and give him enough energy to try to pick the lock on the bathroom window again, and he gets inside.

Eventually, Thomas approaches Barnes about a rematch between Wood Mountain and Joe as a fundraiser for a delegation to travel to Washington, DC, for a hearing on the Termination Bill. He asks Millie Cloud, who conducted a survey on the economic state of the reservation, to participate in the hearing. Barnes convinces both boxers to participate. Wood Mountain has also grown more and more fond of both Patrice and the baby. He also makes the cradle board, a task typically completed by the father. He wins the boxing match, which descends into chaos but raises money for the trip to Washington.

Patrice and Pokey find their father dead in the cabin after he had been drunkenly wandering for months. They bury him, relieved in some ways to be free of him. Thomas, Juggie, Moses, Millie, and Patrice depart for Washington and present their case. On the way home, Thomas has a stroke, but he lives.

While the delegation is gone, Vera returns, having been rescued by a man named Harry and his dog Edith. She bonds with Wood Mountain over her son, who she can tell is very attached to him. When Patrice returns, she puts aside her feelings for Wood Mountain and encourages him to pursue Vera. Millie applies for a grant to pay Zhaanat to both help her with research and help Patrice attend college.