HOUSE MADE OF DAWN, by N. Scott Momaday, Harper and Row, NY, 1968, 191 pp.
Momaday, a Kiowa, was raised in the southwest. This novel, his first, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 -- the first by an Indian writer. But its literary significance -- why it won this prestigious award -- is why this book marks a watershed in Indian literature. There have been straightforward narrative novels by Indian writers before (and since), usually attempting to capture in fictional form something of the lifestyles of a tribal people, or displacd peoples' experience. Momaday was the first to show that Indian writers can use sophisticated literary techniques to convey both native culture and modern native lives, as well as higher values. His work remains one of the best examples, as well as the first, of stylized form. The majority of Indian novels are still straight narratives.
The story of Abel, a Pueblo youth raised traditionally in the self-contained world with its meaningful customs, sacred events -- and the boredom and lack of a future that leaves him envying eagles and longing to fly away himself -- is told by an interleaving of disconnected interior monologues from a variety of characters, very unreliable (untrustworthy) some of them. It's full of flashacks, forwards, and side glances. To figure out plot and events, the reader has to fit these monologues together like a puzzle. In the end certain key pieces are left missing, a mystery that keeps the story always before the reader's own inner eye, turning in the circle which is its basic structure.
The book starts with a "now";which is sometime in the early winter of 1952. The distantly-seen figure of Abel, smeared with ash, is running a sacred endurance race. (We later learn this race of the dead is actually held late every November,) At the very end of the book, Abel's grandfather has just died -- running off in dreaming that same race, where he excelled as a young man, beyond his pain of illness and age, chasing the dark shadow-figure of death. After Abel has prepared his body for burial, he goes out in the snowy dawn to join the blackened runners, who may be metaphoric, imaginary. Abel's run to me meant survival of the people and their culture, despite the hard times of Termination and Relocation, which have just started. Yet there is also an implication Abel will run into the shadows beyond his own pain, drink himself to death. Abel has no real connections (as his grandfather had) to the timeless traditions. He has no remaining relatives. He loves no one and no one -- except an abandoned lover in Los Angeles -- cares about him.
At the end, he is running -- as at the beginning -- on a song. It is not a song of his pueblo's traditions, which he has not involved himself in since killing the eagle whose ceremonial confinement and degradation he couldn't stand. The eagle, trapped for traditional sacrifice, reminded him of himself, trapped on the reservation. He leaves, joins the army, is a war hero, but can't make it afterward either on the reservation or off it.
It's not clear why he and the albino man he kills hate each other -- that's one of the missing puzzle pieces. It's possible the albino was the baby born to his grandfather's woman -- the reason he abandoned her. It's not at all clear why the albino is supposed to be a symbol of absolute evil. The role of the old crazy priest -- whose diaries we read -- indicates something is going on that resulted in the albino's birth. The crazy old woman -- possibly the albino's mother -- is possibly the beloved, wildly sexy woman Abel's grandfather abandoned when her child (which might not have been his) was born with something (never stated) wrong.
The misremembered scraps of song Abel runs on at the end are not from his pueblo's traditions, which he doesn't know much about. They are bits of the Navajo Beauty Ways he picked up from his one friend, Benally, talking and drinking in the LA hills after his parole from prison. Yet, the feeling is strong: he is running into life, not his and his people's long death: "The people of the town have little need. They do not hanker after progress and have never changed their essential way of life....They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls, and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting. "
The story doesn't unfold as a chronicle. It is extracted like puzzle pieces from tangles and time-cuts among incomplete inner thoughts of the unreliable characters. The mysterious albino evil figure, whom Abel, drunk after his World War II sojourn in the outside world, kills during a Pueblo ceremony, is a central mystery, never solved. Another mystery figure is the LA Sun Priest, Momaday himself, a combination hype artist and word-struck preacher, who purveys a central part Momaday's later, more accessible book The Way to Rainy Mountain as a miniature sermon, preached to dispirited Indian people at a mission in LA.
Literary reviewers described the book as the story of a post-war Indian man's "descent to hell" caused by his war years away from timeless beauties of his tribe and his exposure to a senseless and violent alien culture. In this view, Abel is modeled on Pima Ira Hayes, a war hero who was a drunk on his return and drowned in 2 inches of water. That's an oversimplification. It is much more than that. The hell is that the beautis of the ancient culture are not in fact timless; they are dying. Abel was wild to get away from where he felt as trapped by tradition as the eagle. Benally rememjbers the wonderful fling of being in the center of everything, but says that's only true when you're a kid. The old people, the old ways are dying, and the reservation is actually a place of poverty, there is nothing for young men there. The vividly conveyed (but ultimately impenetrable) human mysteries, and set-piece visual images, give the book most of its power.
Advanced high school students can follow it, the passages themselves are not difficult reading. For those not experienced with complex literary form, teacher help with the time scheme will be required.None of its force has been lost over 30 years. House Made of Dawn is -- for its groundbreaking form and its enduring power -- the most importantliterary work by a Native writer to date. No person of any culture can claim to be educated who has not read and pondered it. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Last Updated: Tuesday, April 02, 1996 - 9:18:04 PM