Sunday, March 5, 2017

House Made of Dawn -- Book Review and Memory

image from Paperback Swap

I depend on friends, relatives, and NPR interviews and reviews, for book recommendations. So when a writer friend (Dan Alexander, you know who you are) asked me via email if I had read House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, I had to confess that I had not. Nor, in fact, did I even know it existed.

The N. Scott Momaday, I knew was a poet. A poet I met some thirty-three or -four years ago. Back when I was studying poetry under Dr. Norman H. Russell at, what was then Central State University, and is now the University of Central Oklahoma.

Dr. Russell was a botanist and a well-respected Native American poet. He taught me two very important concepts. 1.) Science and art are not mutually exclusive. 2.) There are poets alive and well and still writing poetry.

Anytime one of Dr. Russell's fellow poets passed through Oklahoma, he dragged them to our poetry classes. Among them: Joe Bruchac a Native American from New York (who knew there were Indians in New York?), the Western poet Paul "Red" Shuttleworth (who kept Irish Wolfhounds as muses), the Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds (who also wrote poetry), and N. Scott Momaday.

When I met Momaday in Dr. Russell's class, he had long since received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn and was "widely credited as leading the way for the breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream." (Wikipedia) But I met him as a poet and did not know about this novel or its attendant acclaim.

House Made of Dawn is the story of Abel, a young man raised in the old ways of his native Pueblo by his grandfather. The structure of the book reminds me of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Like the character Olive Kitteridge, Abel's story is told by the people around him who tell a little of their own stories.

And it is like Carmac McCarthy's Border trilogy about the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Southwest, but with a greater fullness of language.

A young Pueblo man returns to his home from World War II. Abel is changed by that wrenching experience as must all the young men be who return from war no matter what community they were born into. The dislocation by war makes Abel an outsider in his own Pueblo. He no longer fits, or maybe the Pueblo no longer fits him.

Things happen and he is removed again from his home and eventually relocated in Los Angeles. He is relegated to the Native American community which is itself a community of outsiders within the resident white majority. Abel does not fit even in the Los Angeles Native American community, because it is an amalgam of many disparate nations and cultures unreasonably lumped together as Native American. Each of them different from his own.

Abel's friend Ben Benally describes Abel's situation in Los Angeles "You have to get used to everything, you know; it's like starting out some place where you've never been before." And "Everybody's looking at you, waiting for you . . . . And they can't help you because you don't know how to talk to them. They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don't know what and your own words are no good because they're not the same . . . ."  Even though those words are all English.

In the end, for better or for worse, Abel returns to his Pueblo and his grandfather and the old ways.

Like other poet/novelists Momaday created this novel in the language of poetry. And it is beautiful.

The character Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, Priest of the Sun, describes perfectly the feeling of the first Kiowa man to step out onto the Great Plains: "There is something about the heart of the continent that resides always at the end of vision, some essence of the sun and wind."

That is the prairie that I know and love. A sense of vastness washed by the sun and the wind.

I've read several reviews of House Made of Dawn. Some describe it as disjointed, hard to follow. And it did take me a bit to get into the rhythm of the story-telling. This is not a book to be read while you watch TV. Giving it your undivided attention, though, will return great rewards.