N. Scott Momaday’s first novel, “House Made of Dawn,” is noted by some critics as sparking a renaissance in Native American literature. Published in 1969, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, rave reviews, and a place in the canon of contemporary literature.
So, it is with some hesitation that I admit to not enjoying the novel too much. There seems to be an attempt at being elusive, at showing only part of what is happening, in a way many post-modern novels do. I actually enjoy many novels without the normal narrative, or rising plot structure, but Momaday’s books just fails to connect the pieces when needed.
The novel centers around Abel, who returns to his reservation following his time in World War II. Not long after arriving at home, he murders a man. We pick up the story seven years later in Los Angeles, when Abel is let out of jail. At first, we get the story (or lack thereof) from Abel’s mind, but then it switches to the Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, who gives a long sermon. The sermon shares many stories of the Kiowa tribe, to which Momaday belongs. The tales are interesting and create a better understanding of the Kiowa tribe, but the connection of these to Abel’s situation is not clear. The last major section switches to Abel’s friend, Ben Benally’s, viewpoint of Abel. It is not a pretty picture. He cannot understand the way other Native Americans have assimilated to white culture, and he begins to drink and leaves his job. Eventually, he just disappears.
The narrative comes full circle, and is at its strongest, in the final pages of the novel. Abel disappears so he can return home to care for his dying grandfather, and there seems to be a return to his starting point as he reenters the traditions of his heritage.
As noted before, the novel is seen as creating a publishing spark for writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie. Their novels seem are clearer in their narratives, but perhaps Momaday’s challenging storyline reflects the struggle of Native Americans in contemporary life. It hits many of the themes that will dominate other novels, such as assimilation, alcohol abuse, racism, loss of tradition, and a return to Native American roots. Because of its influence, it is worth reading.