House Made of Dawn, by M. Scott Momaday
After fighting in World War Two, Abel returns home to the Indian reservation drunk and detached. His experience with war and the rapid unfolding of the twentieth century seem to have rendered his traditional worldview obsolete and far away. Though his grandfather is there to remind Abel of his former life and the life of his people, there is something deep within Abel which keeps him out of reach. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Abel murders Juan Reyes–an albino Indian known as “the white man”.
The story is told non-chronologically from the perspective of multiple changing narrators who, together, reveal what happened to Abel before, during, and after the murder. Through them we learn about Angela, the white woman visiting the mineral baths near the reservation with whom Abel had an affair; his failure to fully integrate into working society after a six year stay in a California jail; his relationship with Milly, a white social worker and, finally, the death of his grandfather.
Abel is a man torn between two worlds and cultures that could not bear the influence of the other. His spontaneous killing of a “white man”, though grisly and of course wildly unjust, makes it’s own kind of terrible sense in this context. It also made me wonder about the implications of his predilection for white women…
Momaday writes the beauty of the southwestern landscape into perfect being. His descriptions of red canyon walls, waving yellow-graying plains, and the farthest stretching skies are second only to Willa Cather’s, in my opinion, and were my favorite part of the book which, all in all, I was disappointed by. The changing narration felt disjointed and I was often confused and, too often, I felt that Momaday’s poetic language, though lovely, obscured the narrative. Though it’s easier to put together now having finished, it felt while reading that there simply wasn’t enough story. I see why the book’s themes alone warrant the book’s reputation as a “classic” of Native American literature, but the execution didn’t do it for me.
Have you read it? Did it do it for you?