This book won the Pulitzer Prize for its deep and compelling writing, which explores historical events of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa through stories that are at times heartbreaking, humorous, and magical. These The Night Watchman book club questions will give you plenty of starting points to discuss this unique and powerful book, and its historical importance.
Our discission guide for The Night Watchman explores the stories of the main characters, Thomas Wazhask, who is based on the author’s grandfather, and Pixie Paranteau, a young woman navigating the spaces between tradition, ambition, exploitation, and responsibility. Erdrich weaves their stories together with those in their tribe to explore the intricacies of tribal life, the persecution and exploitations of Native Americans by the government and others, and the inner workings of their personal relationships and spiritual life.
Keep reading this guide for a synopsis, selected reviews, similar book recommendations, and The Night Watchman book club questions to gather some thought provoking ideas to further explore this intriguing book.
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The Night Watchman Synopsis
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new “emancipation” bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn’t about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run”?
Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice’s shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn’t been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.
Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice’s best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.
In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.
10 The Night Watchman Book Club Questions
- Erdrich switches the narrative between the narratives of the two main characters, Thomas and Patrice. How did this affect the overall story? Did you like the alternation between the narratives?
- The story uses magical realism throughout, such as Patrice’s experience sleeping by the bear, and Thomas’s viewing of beings in the sky after falling outside the factory. How do these experiences enhance your understanding of the characters’ connection to the land around them, their culture, and history?
- What stereotypes about Native Americans does Senator Watkins lay out in his testimony questions? How does the memory and presence of Roderick help Thomas deal with the stereotypes and insinuating questions?
- How does the House Concurrent Resolution 108 bill frame its words to make it sound like a positive, empowering change for the tribes? What words does Thomas use to explain his view of the actual purpose of the bill?
- “But every so often the government remembered about Indians and when they did they always tried to solve Indians, thought Thomas. They solve us by getting rid of us.” What do you think would have happened to the members of the Turtle Mountain Tribe if the bill had passed?
- What do you think Patrice’s future will look like? Do you think she will go to school, leave her home, or stay put in the future?
- How has the experience of traveling back to the tribe and testifying for them changed Millie? What do you think she will do in the future?
- How did caring for Vera’s baby change Wood Mountain?
- Were you familiar with the history of Native American tribes in the U.S. before this book? What about the attempts to terminate them? What new information or perspectives has this book given you?
- How did Patrice’s experience of going to the city, where she was very naive of the dangers, and ending up as the water jack, parallel or different from the way Native American tribes have been treated in our country?
Selected Reviews for The Night Watchman
“I loved everything about this book – the writing, the characters, the story, the importance of it and that Louise Erdrich pays a wonderful tribute to her grandfather who inspired this story. It’s beautifully written and depicts a strong sense of community, of family, and of the hard life on the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. It’s filled with characters that are easy to love, to admire, to root for as they fight for their identity, their land, not to be “terminated”, as they struggle with managing their daily existence.”
“I love Erdrich’s writing and her command over the language. She plays with the meaning of words, subverts norms, and makes her points subtly and quietly. She weaves in bits of humor to lighten the tone. I learned so much from reading this. Erdrich’s author’s note at the end taught me even more. The fact that the current administration is trying to emancipate tribes doesn’t surprise me. It makes me nauseous and angry to think about. However, Erdrich’s final sentences leave me feeling hopeful.
The Night Watchman is a powerful read filled with heart and soul. It serves as a loving tribute to Erdrich’s grandfather who fought for Native American Rights. The characters, their journeys, and the message of this book moved me and will stay with me for time to come. I highly recommend!”
“Louise Erdrich could punch me in the face (imagine that lol) and I’d say thank you — which is to say, even though this wasn’t as much of a slam dunk for me as The Round House I still enjoyed it. She weaves autofiction, magical realism, and a compelling cast of characters together here to tell the story of a community who’s existence is threatened by the US government’s attempts to close down Native American reservations. Loved the central characters esp. Pixie and Wood Mountain, was less sure of the pacing/inclusion of some of the minor characters’ perspectives.”
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3 Books like The Night Watchman
If you like Erdrich’s vibe, we’ve also got a book club guide for The Sentence, which deals with themes of family, redemption, the BLM movement and cultural appropriation.
If your book club is interested in reading more award winners, check out our guides for The Dutch House (Pulitzer), Girl, Woman, Other (Booker), Such a Fun Age (Booker) and Between the World and Me (National Book Award).
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by David Treuer
If you are looking to learn more about Native American history in our country, this book will provide you with a sweeping history of Native American life in the U.S. from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to the present.
This text uses history, reporting, memoir, and narrative to bring to light the more current struggles and realities for tribes in the U.S., from government seizures to cultural perceptions and resistance.
There There, by Tommy Orange
This book provides perspectives of modern Native American life through the perspectives of different characters, while also providing historical context and realities to their story. The story converges around 12 people who are all traveling to the same Oakland, California Pow Wow. They each bring their own experience of urban life and what it means to be a Native American in current times, each with their own unique journey and experience.
This is a great choice if you are looking for another compelling fiction read with Native American characters and experiences.
The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver
This book follows the story of a Baptist missionary family and their journey in the Belgian Congo in 1959. This powerful book explores themes of culture, religion, oppression, and family dynamics set against the tumultuous political upheavals occurring in the Congo during this time.
If you enjoyed the deep cultural examination told in The Night Watchman, this book will be a good fit for you. The time period is similar, and while the setting and characters are vastly different, they struggle under many similar societal and historical difficulties.
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Authored by Lacy Challe
She’s is an avid reader who lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two children, and dog. She has loved reading and writing about books since childhood, and eventually earned degrees in Comparative Literature and Library and Information Science. She loves analyzing books and providing recommendations to family and friends.