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[345] House Made of Dawn – N. Scott Momaday

” And Abel was running. He was naked to the waist, and his arms and shoulders had been marked with brutal wood and ashes. The cold rain slanted down upon him and left his skin mottled and streaked. The road carved out and lay into the bank of rain beyond, and Abel was running. Against the winter sky and the long, light landscape of the valley at dawn, he seemed almost to be standing still, very little and alone. ” [Prologue, 2]

“There was a house made of dawn,” and N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel begins with Abel, of the Tano tribe, alone and running, yet he seems to be standing still, very little and alone. As Momaday only reveals the details of his protagonist in natural arcs, it’s not until much later in the novel that the beginning is very well the ending. The land, to which Momaday devotes with a rich effort and language, is a constant in Abel’s life from and to which he runs. It’s a remote place, divided from the rest of the world by great forked range of mountains, but more so by time and silence, as Abel’s failure to assimilate to the modern world demonstrates.

The people of the town have little need. They do not hanker after progress and have never changed their essential way of life. Their invaders were a long time in conquering them; and now, after four centuries of Christianity, they still pray in Tanoan to the old deities of the earth and sky and make their living from the things that are and have always been within their reach . . . [58]

Abel left the reservation to fight the white man’s war in Europe. He returns a changed man whom modernity has exploited. He may seek solace in the arms of a white woman, who seduces him on the account of giving him an odd job splitting wood. What really tears him apart is committing a crime that he sees as a necessity. Without saying a word, after he encounters the “white man,” an albino Native, Albel emanates a vague menace with every look and motion. Not only did he serve six years in prison, his life also descends into a downward spiral of misery and despair afterward, as he seeks a living in the city. The white man, whom he kills, haunts him and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Why should Abel think of the fishes? He could not understand the sea; it was not his world. It was an enchanted thing, too, for it lay under the spell of the moon . . . The sea,…and small silversided fishes spawned mindlessly in correlation to the phase of the moon and the rise and fall of the tides. [98]

Abel’s struggle is one of his own and of his heritage and its expectations. His inability to find his place at home or in the modern white world expounds this struggle, and justifies his “running.” In prose so lush and hazy, House Made of Dawn is both mysterious and unyielding—much like the life and the land it portrays. The fragments of memories over random time best describe a life that is derailed of its inertia, as Abel struggles to find his place. There is little action in the novel, but there exists a mental and emotional landscape that is, like the backdrop, seared on the minds and hearts of those who experience it. The four parts of the book, like movements in a symphony, make a full circle back to where it begins—to a house, the natural landscape that sustains the Native Indians, reinforcing the theme that even modernity cannot take away the tribe’s ancient belief. The powerful writing carries the heartache and sorrow of a people relegated to change brought on by another culture.

212 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


4 Responses

  1. Are we all not moving in circles? We change something today only to pick what we left yesterday. This seems a powerful novel I would love to read.

    • I’m glad I finally overcome the fear of reading this book, which I skimmed through in high school for American literature class. I was too young to appreciate the depth, not to mention I was clueless about Native Americans and their heritage.

  2. This sounds like a lovely book and yet another one that I have never heard of until you brought it to my attention.

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