After reading Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, I decided to read a novel about Native Americans written by a Native American author. I selected another Pulitzer Prize winner, House Made of Dawn (1968) by N. Scott Momaday.
Momaday is a Kiowa novelist, short story writer and essayist. He was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2007 in recognition of his work’s “celebration and preservation of indigenous oral and art tradition.” Momaday has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford University. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science and he holds 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities. House Made of Dawn is regarded as the first major work of the Native American Renaissance.
According to Momaday, “A word has power in it of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.”
Momaday’s protagonist, Abel is a Native American returning to his reservation in New Mexico after fighting in World War II. He was raised on the reservation by his grandfather, Francisco after the deaths of his Mother and brother. Abel had virtually no contact with the community outside the reservation as he learned native traditions and values. Taking the Army bus to boot camp was Abel’s first time riding in a motorized vehicle. His fellow soldiers, their customs and even their food must have seemed foreign to him. Realizing his life depended on these men and their lives depended on him would be terrifying. Abel’s war experiences seem to sever his link with his people and his heritage. He returns home from the war too drunk to recognize his grandfather whose health has greatly declined.
Though there was no name for it after WWII, Abel is clearly suffering from PTSD. Many of the people he knew had never stepped foot off the reservation. How could he talk to them about his experiences?
Abel does odd jobs procured for him by the village priest. He begins an affair with a wealthy white woman who hires him to chop firewood for her home. She urges Abel to leave the reservation and promises to help him find a permanent job.
Abel’s alienation seems complete when he loses a game of horsemanship to a local man. When the man begins to taunt Abel, Abel is convinced the man (an Albino Native American) is a witch and stabs him outside a bar.
After Abel completes his prison sentence, he tries unsuccessfully to live in Los Angeles. He remains at loose ends until he returns to the reservation and cares for his dying grandfather. Can Abel find peace by reconnecting with his people?
Momaday based the events in this book on many of his own experiences and the experiences of his childhood friends. He drew high praise from historians for the accuracy of a peyote service detailed in the story and his rich descriptions of Native American life. When House Made of Dawn debuted, critics were slow to review it because they were hesitant to criticize a Native American for writing about Native Americans.
Momaday excels at descriptive passages. He has an uncanny ability to make you see commonplace things such as rain or a trail through the woods as if they were new and miraculous. However, House Made of Dawn is not an easy read. The rich text demands your full attention.
Some of Momaday’s other works include The Way to Rainy Mountain, The Names: A Memoir, The Ancient Child, In the Presence of the Sun, stories and poems, The Native Americans: Indian County, and Four Arrows & Magpie: A Kiowa Story (a children’s book).