House Made of Dawn is a novel by N. Scott Momaday, widely credited as leading the way for the breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969.
In this story, a troubled young Native American named Abel is struggling with the modern world and the loss of his heritage. We follow him through his return to New Mexico after World War II, his time in Los Angles after a stint in prison, and his return home again. As before, I will not give a synopsis of the book as those are plentiful on the Web. I will instead focus on the themes that moved me.
At only 198 pages, I picked this book next because it was shorter. But much like a small piece of very rich cheesecake, the density of the writing made this book a joy to work through. In particular, the descriptions of the landscape are just exquisite. Having hiked the mountains of west Texas and southern New Mexico, I can tell you Momaday brings these places to life through the word pictures he draws.
The great depth and effort he goes into describing the landscape and the character’s love and bond to it reinforces how important these aspects of life are to the Native Americans – it drives home to the reader that this is the source of happiness and fulfillment to Abel. And hence – the loss of this lifestyle and attachment are what drive him to unhappiness and excessive drink to escape the pain.
The second theme is the tempo of life Abel is dealing with. On the reservation, life shares a tempo with nature – there is no sense in hurrying, no sense in rushing – the sun comes up when it comes and sets when it sets. But in the Army, and again in Los Angeles, Abel has to be at work at a certain time, deal with traffic and the bustle of the city – and he cannot stand it. The stress is unnatural and he escapes through drink. He also struggles with his fellow Native Americans who have adapted all too well to the white man’s world.
The are a multitude of themes and imagery in this book – too many to go into here. But the overriding theme of the book was – pain. The emotional and physical pain Abel feels due to the loss of all he loves over the course of the book, finally ending with the death of his grandfather (his last attachment to the past) at the end. That sounds depressing, but it is reality – the reality that existed whenever native cultures came into clash with the modern world. And understanding this pain is central to understanding the issues the Native Americans have had in adapting to the modern world.