After reading many reviews praising The Night Watchman, I had quite high expectations for this novel. Having now read it, I can’t say that I found this to be either very good or bad.
Louise Erdrich’s own grandfather was the inspiration for the character of Thomas Wazhashk and for the events that transpire in The Night Watchman. Set in 1953 Thomas, like Erdrich’s grandfather, works as a night watchman. As a member of the Chippewa Council he loves and wants to protect his community. When he hears of Congress’ new “emancipation” bill, he knows that is the United States newest threat against his people.
The serious and inspirational subject matter captivated my attention. Sadly, I think I would preferred to read a non-fictionalised account of this important story. In The Night Watchman Thomas’ fight against Native dispossession is lost in a plodding narrative that follows an array of inconsequential characters. While I understand that shifting the focus on many different characters can give an impression of a certain family or community…here we also get entirely unnecessary segments on characters such as Barnes and two mormons.
Pixie Paranteau, a young woman who is beautiful, ‘spunky’, good at her job, different from other women, was a surprisingly grating character. The story tries so hard to make her into some sort of heroine that I just found her annoying. Her story didn’t have the same tone as Thomas and felt very meandering. The first quarter of her arc seems to promise one of those ‘my sister is missing’ narratives…but then it reverts to her back at the reservation where she seems to occupied feeling ‘righteously’ angry/jealous of her friends and deciding which guy she fancies (everyone seems in love with her).
Thomas and Pixie struck me as very one-dimensional. Thomas has only the outlines of a personality…but he is mostly presented as simply being ‘good’. Characters in general (regardless if ‘good’ or ‘bad’) lacked psychological complexity.
The prose often made characters sound silly. There is an overuse of exclamation marks. Some dialogues came across as stilted (as if two characters were being forced to interact for plot reasons) and there were one too may platitudes (such as “Women’s bodies make such miracles”).
There were few description of the characters’ environment, and because of this I never had a clear picture of their surroundings.
The magical realism that threads this story was perhaps one of the elements I most liked in the overall novel.
All in all, I’m afraid that this novel didn’t really inspire any strong feelings in me. I had a similar experience with Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea (which also draws upon real events). Both of these books tell important stories through rather one-dimensional characters.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars