Louise Erdrich’s new novel “The Night Watchman” (HarperCollins, $28.99) shimmers and dances like the northern lights the book’s cover evokes.
Thomas Wazhushk, the night watchman of the title, works security at a jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota that employs his niece Patrice. It is 1953, and Thomas, a tribal council member, is fighting a congressman who wants to cut his people off from their land.
Smart, beautiful and adamantly independent, Patrice prides herself on being the best at the intensely intricate work of laying slivers of jewels into tiny keyboards for watches. Patrice’s job allows her to support her mother and brother amid the turmoil her alcoholic father wreaks on their household on the occasions he lurches home.
Patrice — nicknamed Pixie for her elfin eyes — fears for her sister Vera, who has gone to Minneapolis and had a baby but hasn’t been heard from since. Visions of Vera haunt Patrice’s dreams and those of their mother Zhaanat. Patrice borrows days off from her workplace pals to investigate.
Arriving in “the Cities,” Patrice is strong-armed into a lucrative job in a nightclub with underwater entertainment. Dressed in a blue rubber cow suit, she swims in a tank as a female “Babe” in the Paul Bunyan story. Patrice stumbles into a dark world that hints of the horrors her sister endured — but still no sign of Vera.
Back home, two men long for Patrice’s affections: Wood Mountain, a Native American teen boxer, and his coach, math teacher Lloyd Barnes, who is white.
Thomas plans a boxing match between Wood Mountain and his Anglo rival Joe Wobleszynski to raise money for a trip to Washington to testify.
Erdrich, who is part Chippewa, is a gifted storyteller whose writing introduces readers to Native American characters they will be sad to leave at book’s end. She subtly tells the story of the ruinous way this country treated its native people.
As night watchman, Thomas fights off sleep and is often visited by the impish spirit of his friend Roderick, whose story unspools the cruelties of Indian schools designed to erase a people rather than educate them.
Vera’s story of sexual enslavement was inspired by the real-life sexual trafficking of native women.
Thomas is based on Erdrich’s grandfather, who testified before Congress against a bill that would have “emancipated” the tribe — in reality, stripping the tribe of all federal support and expelling them from their land.
“Watchman” has it all — the tingly pangs of Patrice’s sexual awakening and the warmth of the longstanding love between Thomas and his wife Rose; the joys of workplace girlfriends and the agony of romantic triangles; the tense buildup to a boxing bout and a faceoff with a villainous real-life congressman.
In powerfully spare and elegant prose, Erdrich depicts deeply relatable characters who might be poor but are richly connected to family, community and the Earth.
Read more at USA Today.