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N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn

This book was the first Native American novel to win the Pulitzer Prize and deservedly so. While it still has a strong reputation, it does not have the reputation it should have. It was originally planned to be a cycle of poems and this is quite apparent in reading it, as it has a poetic or even a painterly beauty which makes it a joy to read. The theme is not uncommon in Native American literature – the story of a young man who cannot adjust to the white man’s world and turns to drink to find solace.

Abel is the main character of this book. As a boy, he was a strong runner. Once he had played a part; he had rubbed himself with soot, and he ran on the wagon road at dawn. He ran so hard that he could feel the sweat fly from his head and arms, though it was winter and the air was filled with snow. He ran until his breath burned in his throat and his feet rose and fell in a strange repetition that seemed apart from all his effort. At last he had overtaken Mariano, who was everywhere supposed to be the best of the long-race runners. He lost his mother and brother, to whom he was very close, when fairly young. He never knew his father. He has since been brought up by his grandfather, Francisco.

When we first met him, he is drunk. This is not the last time that we see him in this state. He has been fighting in World War II. We do not learn much about his military service but we do get the testimony of one of his fellow soldiers (a white man) who remembers him doing a sort of war dance in front of German tanks and nearly getting himself killed. What is clear is that the war has changed him. To use his own words, he no longer played a part. His grandfather meets him at the bus stop, horrified at his drunken state. Francisco himself had been something of a leader in the community but is now an old man but still a man that we can clearly admire for his good deeds, for his adherence to his native culture and for carrying on his life. He is, to some degree, compared with Father Olguin, the local priest who is committed to his duties and shows an interest in his predecessors and the past of the mission. It is Father Olguin who finds Abel a job chopping wood for Angela St. John, a rich white woman who is visiting to bathe in the mineral waters. Almost inevitably, she seduces Abel, attracted by his manly physique.

However, the key event is a local festival where an albino, Juan Reyes, wins a horse-riding event, beating Abel with a bloody rooster. Abel is determined that Reyes is some sort of witch and later seeks him out and stabs him to death. He will spend six years in prison for his crime. However, though he does not defend himself, the priest says I believe that this man was moved to do what he did by an act of the imagination so compelling as to be inconceivable to us. In other words, he saw Reyes as a witch who had to be killed.

After serving his prison sentence, we find him in Los Angeles. Initially, things seem to go well. He has a job and he has a girlfriend, Milly, a white social worker. But he cannot really cope. He is taunted by a local quasi-religious Native American group leader and he is picked on by his boss. Apart from Milly, his only friend seems to be his roommate, Ben Benally. The local cop picks on him and, when he tries to get his revenge, he is badly beaten and ends up in hospital. He loses his job and has to borrow money from Ben and Milly, money which is used almost entirely for alcohol. Finally, it is Ben that sends him back home to look after his dying grandfather.

Abel is not, of course, the first Native American to lose his way either in literature or real life. Momaday, however, does not try to excuse or justify his behaviour. Indeed, he has a role model ready to hand, his grandfather, Francisco, who has always comported himself with dignity, a strong respect for and love of the traditions of his people and a strong sense of responsibility. However, it is all too clear that Abel cannot live up to his grandfather’s standards. Momaday clearly shows the alternatives but also shows that choosing the right alternative is not always easy. This is a first-class book, fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize, with a fine story, wonderful descriptions and the psychology of a troubled man.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Harper & Row