House Made of Dawn

N. Scott Momaday’s groundbreaking novel House Made of Dawn begins and ends with the land:

Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plains, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.

Like Leslie Marmon Silko’s later novel Ceremony, this book is about a young man returning from the second World War to the reservation where he grew up. During the war, Abel has been exposed for the first time to brutal violence, white women, and alcohol, and when he comes back, he finds all of these traps awaiting him again. Abel must make his decision: will he fall into a spiral of disgust and despair, or will he allow the land to work its healing medicine?

The name of the main character — Abel, the son of Adam who was killed by his meat-eating brother — is no coincidence. In this novel, his exploitation cries out from the ground in the same way: he has gone to fight the white man’s war, he has been seduced by a white woman who thinks of him as an animal, he has had his native religion taken from him, he has taken to drinking, and eventually he has killed what you might call the ultimate white man — an albino he sees as a natural enemy. This results in a six-year prison term and a series of other violent episodes. What is left for Abel, when Cain is everywhere?

Momaday’s prose is lush. Whether he’s describing Abel’s joy in running across the reservation, “little and alone,” or his fierce, holy pleasure in seeing an eagle with a snake in its beak, or his excruciating pain when a police officer breaks his hands, the moment is vivid. The book gives a rich picture of Indian life, whether that means a peyote ceremony or the Relocation Program in Los Angeles.

Still, there were themes and arcs in the story I found problematic. Momaday sells the notion that white women are trouble pretty hard. Even the kind one — blonde social worker Milly, whom we really get to know — is trouble in the end. Silko manages this gender divide better, to my mind, even where it intersects with questions of race. The bigger problem, for me, was that Abel’s eventual return to the land seemed unearned. After the murder and his long, degrading stint in prison, after having been beaten almost to death, after his grandfather’s death — what makes Abel finally decide to participate in the race of the dead? Does he choose it, or is it chosen for him? It was a beautiful moment, but I wasn’t quite convinced that the ground had been laid for it.

Still, this is one of the transformative works of Native literature, one that is not only beautiful and interesting in its own right, but one that made it possible for authors like Silko, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and many others to make their voices heard. I’m so glad I read it.

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2 Responses to House Made of Dawn

  1. Christy says:

    I tried to read this book one summer when I was a college student. I remember finding it too bleak and I didn’t finish it. I’m not sure your post has convinced me to pick it up again. I keep meaning to read one of Louise Erdrich’s books though.

  2. Jenny says:

    I didn’t find it bleak, exactly, because the variation in narrative voice kept it lively for me, and because the prose was so lush. But the story itself was pretty sad. Teresa and I have both enjoyed some of Louise Erdrich’s books a lot. My favorite so far has been Love Medicine.

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