Chapter 15: “House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday (1969)

“Coyotes have the gift of seldom being seen; they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover on the plains and highlands. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they parley at the river with the dogs, their higher, sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to.”

6969It is 1969—two years after the Summer of Love, the year after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the year after the Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago, the year of Woodstock, the year of Charles Manson and his family, the year man walked on the moon.

This was a year of tumult and chaos and confusion, and, from what I gathered reading N. Scott Momaday’s 1969 Pulitzer-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, the same was true for Native Americans this time period.

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This novel is the story of a Kiowa Indian named Abel. Abel grew up in the traditions and customs of his people on a reservation, went to fight the Japanese in World War II, came back home, and became an alcoholic, a peyote user, a degenerate, a fighter, a basket case. Abel’s life, throughout the novel, spirals out of control and he descends into his own personal hell.

This novel gave voice to the plights of Native Americans during this time period, people who are very traditional culturally and are struggling to keep their identity in the 21st century. Those of us who live off the reservation have heard stories, we’ve heard about Indians who are alcoholics and gamblers; but, really, we’ve only heard these stories from newsreels. Most of us don’t know what’s really happening over there, we don’t have a firsthand account—we just have this tidbits we pick up from here, there, and the other. But, in House Made of Dawn, Momaday (being a Kiowa Indian himself and having grown up on a reservation) gives us an intimate account of things that he had probably seen, of people he had probably known, of situations and struggles he had probably encountered on a daily basis.

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It’s been a couple of days since I finished this novel and I’m still wrestling with it, still trying to determine how I felt about it. I loved it almost as much as I hated it, and I hated it almost as much as I loved it. It’s a truly wonderful story, both heartbreaking and inspiring; it was both an engaging fictional story, and informing autobiographical sketch of life in the 21st century as a Native American. I was mesmerized by the story itself, and, after reading it, I felt much more informed about the plight of the Native Americans.

However, throughout the novel, I was frustrated and even angered by Momaday’s writing style. It is truly a great work of everything I know to be postmodern literature—there are parallel narratives being told throughout the book, there are different perspectives addressing the same story, there are different points of view, there are several different “rabbits” Momaday chases, the time and setting are constantly shifting from paragraph to paragraph—it is a great piece of writing.

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And the language and voice Momaday employs is absolutely wonderful—his descriptions of locations, particularly locations in the wilderness or around the reservation, are absolutely beautiful. Somehow, he manages to describe something as mundane as trees in new and interesting and equally breathtaking ways every handful or so of pages. But because of the constant shift in narrative, it was really, really difficult to keep track of the story. The story, at times, simply disappears in Momaday’s prose, albeit elegant. I have to forgive Momaday, though, because his writing is so good that I am forced to believe that his writing style is completely intentional—he knows exactly what he’s doing throughout the novel, in every sentence. Furthermore, putting this novel in historical context, I am forced to believe that House Made of Dawn was written to reflect the chaos and tumult of the 60’s and amongst his fellow Kiowa Indians.

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Despite my difficulty in getting through the novel and keeping track of the story, I absolutely adored House Made of Dawn and would recommend it to anyone wanting to investigate either Native American or postmodern literature.

After this journey is over, I may even want to re-read it, just to more fully pick up on themes and symbolism Momaday uses throughout the novel.

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