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The Night Watchman: Summary and Character Analysis

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the night watchman character analysis

The following is a complete summary and character analysis for The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is her 17th novel.

The story unfolds in 1953 on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation, focusing on the resistance against House Concurrent Resolution 108. This bill aimed to end tribal autonomy.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

In this guide, we will go through the complete summary and character analysis for this novel.

Note: the following guide contains spoilers, so proceed with caution.

Summary | Character Analysis

The Night Watchman Summary

The novel is set in 1953, following Thomas Wazhashk, who works as the night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant and serves as the tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Thomas, inspired by Erdrich’s real grandfather, encounters the ghost of Roderick, a former schoolmate who suffered a tragic fate at Fort Totten, a boarding school.

Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau is another central character, employed at the plant assembling jewel bearings. She supports her family financially, which includes her alcoholic father Pogo, younger brother Pokey, knowledgeable mother Zhaanat, and her sister Vera, who mysteriously vanished after moving to the Twin Cities.

Early in the story, Thomas discovers House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill intending to cut off federal support for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. This financial aid has been vital for the community. Senator Arthur V. Watkins from Utah sponsors the bill, being a Mormon. Driven by the haunting memories of boarding school and Roderick’s death, Thomas strives to thwart the bill’s passage.

Barnes, Pokey’s math teacher and boxing coach, harbors feelings for Patrice. He also coaches Wood Mountain, who engages in a confrontation with Joe “Wobble” Wobleszynski. As Patrice travels to Minneapolis in search of her missing sister Vera, she meets Wood Mountain on the train, marking the beginning of their friendship.

In Minneapolis, Patrice faces a bizarre twist of fate. Kidnapped, she ends up at Log Jam 26, a quirky bar with a Paul Bunyan theme, complete with a nightly water show featuring a woman as Babe, the blue ox. Reluctantly, Patrice takes a job there under pressure from the owner. She also investigates addresses provided for Vera, discovering a neglected dog and suspecting Vera’s confinement. With Wood Mountain’s help, she escapes, finding Vera’s baby but not Vera. They return home.

Back on the reservation, the Turtle Mountain tribal committee strongly opposes the Termination Bill. In a vote, 47 members reject the bill, with none in favor. Patrice shares Vera’s plight with Thomas, deeply troubling him. Distraught, Thomas accidentally locks himself out of the factory in freezing conditions, fearing for his life. Encountering spirits, he regains the strength to re-enter.

Thomas suggests a boxing rematch between Wood Mountain and Joe as a fundraiser for a Washington, DC trip concerning the Termination Bill. He involves Millie Cloud, who conducted an economic survey, in the hearing. Barnes persuades both boxers to participate. Wood Mountain becomes attached to Patrice and the baby, crafting a cradle board traditionally made by fathers. The chaotic boxing match successfully raises funds.

Patrice and Pokey sadly discover their father dead in the cabin after his prolonged drunken wandering. They bury him, feeling a sense of relief. Thomas, Juggie, Moses, Millie, and Patrice embark on a trip to Washington to present their case. On the return journey, Thomas survives a stroke.

During the delegation’s absence, Vera returns, rescued by Harry and his dog Edith. She bonds with Wood Mountain over their son. When Patrice returns, she selflessly encourages Wood Mountain to pursue Vera, setting aside her own feelings. Millie seeks a grant to compensate Zhaanat for research assistance and support Patrice’s college education.

The Night Watchman Character Analysis

Thomas Wazhashk

Meet Thomas Wazhashk, the night watchman and tribal committee chair of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a character deeply rooted in the novel’s narrative and drawn from Erdrich’s own grandfather.

Thomas, instrumental in coining the term “Termination Bill” for House Concurrent Resolution 108, goes beyond his official roles. His introspective moments unveil the profound importance he places on his responsibilities. Themes of survival struggles and the haunting legacy of Native American boarding schools shape his character. The specter of Roderick’s ghost lingers, a reminder of the tuberculosis tragedy in their school’s cellar.

As Thomas evolves, his energy becomes a driving force against the Termination Bill. A stroke during the return journey from Washington, DC, post-hearing, highlights the toll of his unwavering fight. The novel’s conclusion finds Thomas grappling with speech, a poignant aftermath of his enduring struggle.

Derived from his grandfather, the “original Wazhashk,” Thomas’s name signifies “muskrat.” This creature, sacrificing everything to remake the earth, resonates deeply with him. The novel’s end sees Thomas embracing this identity, signing off as “the muskrat” with a small creature sketch in his letters.

Vera Paranteau

Vera serves as both a character and a symbol, embodying the specific dangers faced by Indigenous women. Her ordeal, from the squalid conditions in a house with chains to being repeatedly raped on a ship and left to die on the streets, sheds light on the perilous experiences Indigenous women endure. Patrice and Zhaanat grapple with the lack of concern for a missing Indigenous woman. Even seeking help from the relocation office proves unproductive, and Thomas’s suggestion to involve the police is dismissed, knowing the blame would fall on Vera as an Indigenous woman.

Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau

Leaving the reservation to find her sister, sleeping next to a bear, advocating for her people, embracing her sexuality, and embarking on the path to college, Patrice undergoes profound growth in this novel. A consistent challenge is her role as the primary breadwinner for her family. Early in the novel, Erdrich depicts Patrice’s sense of vulnerability, feeling like she’s stretched thin and fearing the fragility of her family’s stability.

Economic instability is a driving force, compelling Patrice to negotiate with co-workers to search for Vera. Her stint as a waterjack provides financial relief but exposes her to the risks of human trafficking in the cities, contrasting with the perceived safety of the reservation labeled as “savage” by the rest of the country.

Upon returning, Patrice faces consequences, now responsible for Vera’s baby. She debates pursuing Wood Mountain, eventually engaging in a relationship with him despite realizing his deeper connection with Vera. Understanding Vera’s need for healing, Patrice supports their bond.

Connected to nature, Patrice walks barefoot through the forest and sleeps in a bear’s den, feeling rejuvenated and liberated. The novel concludes with her standing with Zhaanat, drinking sap, and being metaphorically lifted into a cloud. This signifies Patrice’s spiritual connection with the earth and a sense of transcendence.

Millie Cloud

Millie, Louis Pipestone’s daughter, conducted an economic study on the reservation. Initially raised away from the reservation due to family disapproval of Louis, Millie finds fascination and connection within her father’s community. As she immerses herself, Millie recognizes the detrimental impact of government legislation on Indigenous peoples. Awkward and intrigued by Zhaanat’s knowledge, Millie hints at a possible romantic interest in women, adding depth to her character.

Wood Mountain/Everett Blue

Everett Blue, known as Wood Mountain, is Archille and Juggie Blue’s son, born in Wood Mountain. He accompanies Patrice at the beginning and end of her Minneapolis journey. As a boxer, he symbolizes the rivalry between the Blue and Wobleszynski families, rooted in a long-standing land dispute. Wood Mountain’s fights against Joe “Wobble” Wobleszynski reflect the ongoing feud, with the second match turning increasingly violent.

Wood Mountain becomes one of Patrice’s love interests, proposing marriage. However, upon her return from Washington, she discovers his newfound affection for Vera. His attachment to Vera’s son, named Archille during her absence, further complicates the situation. Wood Mountain’s crafting of the baby’s cradle board, typically a father’s task, reflects his emotional investment. As Vera returns, he fears losing time with the child.

Lloyd “Hay Stack” Barnes

Barnes, the local math teacher and Wood Mountain’s boxing coach, is one of the few white men on the reservation. Infatuated with Patrice, he attempts to gain her attention by offering gifts to her brother Pokey. Barnes’s failed pursuits contribute to his questioning of his own masculinity. Representing the perspective of a white character, his initial stereotypical views of Indigenous people evolve as he becomes more aware of the negative impact of dominant culture and government on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Arthur V. Watkins

A real-life senator from Utah, Watkins is a staunch advocate for House Concurrent Resolution 108, attempting to end treaty rights with Indigenous peoples. His Mormon background aligns with the religion’s historical inclination to assimilate Indigenous people into white culture. Watkins’s brief chapter reveals his upbringing on land stolen from the Ute people and the Uintah and Ouray reservation. He follows in the footsteps of Mormon leaders who attempted to eradicate Indigenous populations, utilizing legal means to achieve his goals.

Zhaanat Paranteau

Zhaanat, Patrice and Pokey’s mother and Pogo’s wife, is a guardian of Turtle Mountain’s traditions. Sheltered from boarding schools to preserve traditional knowledge, she is described as “capable and shrewd.” Zhaanat maintains faith in Vera’s return, sharing dreams with Patrice about Vera reaching out to them. Her connection to Turtle Mountain’s ceremonies and teaching stories underscores her role as a preserver of cultural heritage.

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