Join me on a journey to rural North Dakota in 1953, where Thomas Wazhashk works as the night watchman at the local jewel-bearing plant.
Thomas is not just a watchman, but also a Chippewa Council member fighting against a new bill that threatens the rights and identity of Native Americans. Meanwhile, Patrice, the class valedictorian, works at the same plant, trying to support her family and find her sister in Minneapolis who has reportedly gone missing.
Via this book, Louise Erdrich explores the lives of these characters and their community, highlighting their struggles and triumphs in the face of adversity.
In this discussion guide, we’ll have a look at some book club questions for The Night Watchman and why it’s a must-read for anyone looking for a powerful and poignant novel that tackles themes of identity, family, and the fight for justice in the face of oppression.
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Book Club Questions for The Night Watchman
- We know that the House Concurrent Resolution 108 was a bill that would have made native American nations vulnerable to the loss of their land and denial of government-provided benefits. Due to this, The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, along with other tribes, faced the possibility of being forced to relocate to the cities, where sustaining traditional life would be difficult.
Don’t you think in spite of being a pretty diverse nation even back in 1953, this bill was a sham in the name of diversity?
- Thomas Wazhushk, the fictional representation of the author’s grandfather, organized resistance against the proposal by seeking advice from knowledgeable tribe members and appearing before the Senate committee considering the bill. He fought against termination as tribal chairman while working as a night watchman and hardly slept.
Why do you think Louise Erdrich decide to portray one of her own in this novel? Also,as a person how did the character of Thomas Wazhushk inspire you?
- Patrice Paranteau must hang onto her job despite having no union protection and being reliant on others for transportation to and from work. She also faced the challenge of navigating relationships with a white teacher who is interested in her and a local young man named Wood Mountain. Additionally, she faces an attempted assault and must negotiate the dangers of living in Minneapolis, where exploitation is rampant.
Based on Patrice’s story and many others, do you think the novel has accurately portrayed the challenges faced by Native American women, particularly in relation to employment, relationships, and safety?
- Patrice wants to see more of life, but her experiences in Minneapolis leave her questioning whether the world is worth exploring. Wood Mountain, on the other hand, feels deeply connected to the land and believes that he could never leave. However, even he acknowledges the connections between the present and the way-back people, and how these connections tie him to his homeland and culture.
What’s your take on the way the novel explored the tension between wanting to explore the wider world and the feeling of being stranded to one’s homeland simultaneously?
- Patrice’s older sister goes missing and it raises concerns for Patrice, who knows that Native American women and girls continue to go missing year after year. The impact of this issue on the characters is significant, as they must navigate the dangers of living in Minneapolis while also grappling with the trauma of having loved ones getting lost. The issue underscores the vulnerability and marginalization that Native American women face in this contemporary society.
- Boxing plays a significant role in the novel, serving as a metaphor for the struggle against oppression and the power of resistance. The boxing match between Wood Mountain and Joe raises money for the delegation to travel to Washington, DC, to fight against the Termination Bill. It also represents the physical and emotional struggles that Indigenous people face in their daily lives, as well as their resilience and determination to fight for their rights and their communities.
What’s your take on this way Louise Erdrich shows the importance of physical and emotional strength in the face of adversity and the ways in which sports can bring people together and inspire hope?
- As the primary source of income for her family, Patrice feels the weight of responsibility on her shoulders and often has to make sacrifices to provide for her family. The decision to leave the reservation and search for her sister is driven by her desire to provide for her family and ensure their safety. Her experience as a waterjack provides her with more money but also exposes her to the dangers of human trafficking.
How do you think Patrice’s economic precarity drives her decision-making throughout the novel?
- Thomas is haunted by Roderick’s ghost, which represents the violence and harm inflicted on Indigenous children in these schools. Roderick’s death from tuberculosis, which he contracted while being punished in the school’s cellar, highlighting the abusive and inhumane conditions of these institutions.
What’s your take on the way Erdrich uses the ghost of Roderick in the novel, and what effect does it have on Thomas Wazhashk?
- Wood Mountain’s character (Everett Blue) represents the ongoing rivalry between his and Joe Wobleszynski’s family, which is rooted in a land dispute. His fights with Joe are also symbolic of the violence and competition that can arise between Indigenous communities. Furthermore, his love for Vera’s son reflects the importance of family and community in Indigenous culture.
What’s your take on this character of Everett Blue and his importance in the novel?
- Millie’s study of the economic situation of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa affects her understanding of the government’s legislation by revealing the ways in which it has negatively impacted Indigenous peoples. As she becomes more immersed in the community, she begins to see the ways in which the government has systematically undercut Indigenous people’s chances of survival. This understanding leads her to question the motivations of the government and consider the ways in which these people have been mistreated throughout history.
Discuss how Millie’s study serves as a critical component of the resistance to the Termination Bill. Also, discuss how her testimony provided enough evidence of the harm that it can cause.
If you liked this set of questions, here are some other options for you to explore.
To Kill a Mockingbird: In the deep South, a young girl named Scout explores her small town’s prejudices and the powerful impact of her father’s defense of an innocent black man accused of a terrible crime. This timeless classic delves into justice, compassion, and the enduring lessons of empathy.
The Exiles: Three remarkable women navigate the treacherous shores of nineteenth-century Australia. From a London governess betrayed to a stolen-spoon thief, their intertwined destinies unfold against a backdrop of redemption, freedom, and the resilience of female friendships.
The Golden Couple: Marissa and Matthew Bishop’s seemingly perfect life is shattered when Marissa’s infidelity comes to light. With their marriage on the brink, they turn to the unorthodox methods of a renowned therapist thus setting off a collision of hidden secrets that go beyond their relationship.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue: In 1714 France, a desperate young woman strikes a deal to live forever, cursed to be forgotten by all. Addie’s extraordinary journey spans centuries until a chance encounter in a secret bookstore shatters her isolation. Can love conquer her curse?