The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman


Louise Erdrich

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The Night Watchman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is one of the most renowned writers of her generation. Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1952. Her father and her mother, an Ojibwe woman, both taught at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wahpeton, North Dakota. From North Dakota, Erdrich went on to attend Dartmouth College before receiving a Master of Arts degree from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. She has written more than 28 books in total, including works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books. Erdrich’s work is often said to belong to the Native American Renaissance, which includes work by Native American writers beginning in the late 1960s. Much of her work explores Native American heritage and identity, and her work often contains narratives that interweave and overlap across multiple novels that take place in the same fictional setting, similar to William Faulkner’s novels set in Yoknapatawpha county. Erdrich has received many awards and accolades over the course of her prolific career; her novel The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012, and The Night Watchman won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021. Erdrich currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 
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Historical Context of The Night Watchman

As Erdrich writes in an introductory note to the novel, The Night Watchman is based on her own grandfather’s attempts to fight the Termination Bill introduced by Senator Arthur V. Watkins in 1953. Erdrich uses Watkins’s real name for the character based on him in the novel. Watkins introduced the termination bill in an attempt to, (according to Watkins), help Indians assimilate into white society, as prophesied in Mormon scripture. Watkins’s bill sought to abrogate treaties signed between Native tribes and the United States government as well as dissolve the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That bill, House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed on August 1, 1953. That passage didn’t immediately eliminate any Native tribes, but it established termination as the United States government’s guiding policy and laid the groundwork for the U.S. government to target individual tribes for termination. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa—the tribe for which Erdrich’s grandfather was the chairman—was one of the first tribes the government. targeted. The Night Watchman presents a fictional account of the real-life events that led her grandfather to lead a group of delegates to Washington, D.C. to successfully testify to Congress against the termination of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Other Books Related to The Night Watchman

Erdrich’s work is often considered part of the Native American Renaissance, a literary period beginning in the late 1960s that marked an increase in the publication of works by Native American authors in the United States. Critics frequently argue that the period began with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. Other notable writers of the Native American Renaissance include Leslie Marmon Silko, whose book Ceremony was published in 1977; James Welch, whose novel Winter in the Blood was published in 1974; and Joy Harjo, the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, whose poetry collection She Had Some Horses was published in 1983. Harjo’s memoir, Crazy Brave, touches on her time in boarding school, a subject that Erdrich explores in The Night Watchman. The Night Watchman details the attempts of people from the Turtle Mountain Reservation to fight against the Termination Bill introduced by Senator Arthur Watkins in 1953. In 2009, President Obama signed S.J. Res. 14, a general apology to Native people for the “long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.” Layli Long Soldier’s book Whereas, published in 2016, was written in response to S.J. Res. 14.
Key Facts about The Night Watchman
  • Full Title: The Night Watchman
  • Where Written: Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • When Published: 2020
  • Literary Period: Native American Renaissance
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: The early 1950s, on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Washington, D.C.
  • Climax: Thomas, Patrice, and others travel to Washington, D.C. to testify against the Termination Bill authored by Senator Arthur V. Watkins.
  • Antagonist: Arthur V. Watkins
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Night Watchman

Congressional Testimony Much of the dialogue from the congressional hearing in the novel is based on the actual record of that hearing, and everything that Senator Watkins says in the hearing scene is a direct quote from the congressional record.

Pulitzer Prize The Night Watchman won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2021. Erdrich’s novel The Plague of Doves was previously nominated for the prize in 2012.