Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pulitzer Project: House Made of Dawn

When I read a brief description of the 1969 Pulitzer winner for fiction, House Made of Dawn, my first thought was that we were sliding back into exotica, the romanticized Indian as portrayed in Laughing Boy. I was wrong, sort of. The author, N. Scott Momaday, is Native American. He's Kiowa but grew up on the Jemez Peublo in New Mexico when his parents taught school there.

Momaday was born in 1934 so was too young to go off to fight in World War II himself but was old enough to notice what happened to the guys who did. They left the reservation knowing who they were and where they fit into the overall scheme of things and came home lost between two cultures: gone long enough that they no longer fit in comfortably at home but not able to assimilate into the dominant culture either. Momaday's main character, Abel, is an orphan who was raised by his grandfather, Francisco. The book opens with Abel running, his face smeared with ash (a sign of mourning), and a traditional Navajo prayer going through his mind:

In the house made of dawn.
In the story made of dawn.
On the trail of dawn.
O, Talking God!
His feet, my feet, restore
His limbs, my body, restore.
His mind, my mind, restore.
His voice, my voice, restore.

From this introduction, the novel goes backwards through a series of flashbacks and vignettes, scenes from Abel's childhood, his life with his grandfather, his experiences in combat seen both through his eyes and through the eyes of his fellow soldiers, and eventually ends up back at the beginning with Abel running. As the narrative progresses, we're shown pieces of Abel's life through the eyes of the local priest, a white woman staying in the area to visit the hot springs that reportedly have therapeutic value, Abel's friends in Los Angeles, and even his social worker from the Indian Relocation program.

My initial impression of the book was that it was rather disjointed, but the more I read, the more it all hung together. Momaday has a way with words. He's also published poetry, and the poet shows. This book isn't the best of the Pulitzer winners I've read, but it's definitely in the upper half. Reading it did not feel like work.

I was intrigued by the fact the book came out a few years after multiple covers of this song were released:
So did Momaday feel inspired to write his first novel after listening to Johnny Cash? Who knows. Unlike the sad fate of Ira Hayes, however, Momaday holds out the possibility that by coming home Abel may actually find himself again. Would I recommend the book? As usual, yes, with reservations. It's easy reading except it's not easy reading. Because it's not a straightfoward narrative and it employs multiple voices, some readers could have trouble following it.

Next up on the list: Collected Stories by Jean Stafford. Once again, it's going to be an Interlibrary Loan Request so here's hoping it comes in quickly so I'll plenty of time to read it before we make our escape from winter. 

1 comment:

My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.