Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Adventure classics -- A run to save his life

House Made of Dawn

by N. Scott Momaday


I was astonished that Kiowa poet, novelist, teacher, and media star N. Scott Momaday chose to begin his academic career with a study of one of the most obscure of American poets (and one who might still be unknown if not for Momaday’s attention), Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. What was there in the life and work of a reclusive nineteenth century New Englander who made only one attempt to communicate with the rest of the world that would commend him to a twentieth century Native American from Oklahoma, I wondered, until I read Momaday’s words about Tuckerman -- “an eye for the minutest aspects of the world. . . pervaded by an always apparent sense of grief.”

They are words that could describe Momaday’s own 1968 first novel, House Made of Dawn, written out of the grief of a character whose entire culture was attempting to burst from obscurity.

Originally intended as a series of poems that became a novel, House Made of Dawn is as slender as last month’s novel by another poet, Dr. Zhivago, is wide. But both burrow deep into the soul.

Momaday is a member of the same Kiowa tribe as the lost, rootless renegades Larry McMurtry used as bogeymen in last Wednesday’s Lonesome Dove. Read Momaday’s version, and you’ll never see McMurtry’s enigmatic villain Blue Duck the same way again.

Even at only 198 pages, with its nonlinear narrative, multiple points of view, and harrowing descent into the central character’s emotional and physical collapse, House Made of Dawn isn’t an easy read. The opening section traces the early life of young Pueblo Indian Abel in New Mexico, brought up by his grandfather Francisco after the death of his mother. The descriptions of the natural world -- the house of dawn -- through which Abel runs in a Pueblo ceremonial, depict the setting as clearly as a landscape
painting. (Not coincidentally, Momaday is also an artist).

Abel has just returned from combat in World War II, an experience that has left him so emotionally shattered he seeks refuge in the forgetfulness of alcohol. After a doomed love affair, Abel kills a rival, the eerie albino Indian Juan Reyes, in a drunken brawl.

The book’s middle sections follow Abel’s release from prison and a forced relocation to Los Angeles, where he is severed from his land and culture. These sections are written from the point of view of Abel’s friends, fellow soldiers, and social workers, as if Abel himself is too broken to carry the burden of narrative. At the end, physically shattered by a brutal beating, Abel returns to his home. Though his grandfather is dying, his presence, his final words, give Abel the strength to take up the story again in his own voice, to find a voice, even if a silent one, in the ancient, grounded ceremonial of running.

“My father was a great storyteller and he knew many stories from the Kiowa oral tradition,” Momaday states in a discussion of his work in the PBS documentary The West. “He told many of these stories over and over because I loved them. But it was only after I became an adult that I understood how fragile they are, because they exist only by word of mouth, always just one generation away from extinction.”

(Although the main story behind House Made of Dawn was based on Momaday’s
experience in experience growing up in the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico where his parents were teachers, the book’s middle sections incorporate stories from other relocated Natives. Some of the Kiowa stories are also excerpted in Momaday’s volume of memoir and folklore, The Way to Rainy Mountain.)

Momaday received the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for House Made of Dawn, and the book’s wide acceptance paved the way for such younger Native writers as Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich. The book was adapted as a movie in 1972.

For more about Momaday, I liked the interview at

To learn about the movie’s history, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics ends of month of writing about Texas and the Southwest with Laura Esquivel’s magical romance, Like Water for Chocolate.)

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