House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday. Highly recommended.
“There was a house made of dawn,” and N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel begins with his Tano protagonist, Abel, “alone and running,” yet “he seemed almost to be standing still, very little and alone.” He may leave to fight the white man’s war in Europe. He may seek solace in the arms of a white woman or two. He may be sent to prison for a crime that he sees as a necessity. He may end up attempting to work in the industrial world. Yet Abel cannot run from the seemingly boundless, stark land or the traditions with which his spirit is bound. The land, as enigmatic as he is, is there at the beginning and there at the end. It is the constant in his life from and to which he runs. In biblical terms, it is the alpha and omega of his being.
I first learned of House Made of Dawn from an excerpt in American Indian Literature: An Anthology (revised) edited and introduced by Alan R. Velie, in which Abel encounters the “white man,” an albino Native who, although he appears only briefly in the novel, is one of modern literature’s most compelling characters. Without saying a word, he emanates a vague menace with every look and motion. “Above the open mouth, the nearly sightless eyes followed the old man [Abel’s grandfather] out of the cornfield, and the barren lids fluttered helplessly behind the colored glass.” You will never forget the white man. “A man kills such an enemy if he can.” The white man sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Nor will you forget Abel’s struggles, with his heritage and its expectations, with alcoholism, with his own body, with his own desires, his inability to find his place at home or in the modern white world, and with his emotional and physical pain.
There is the dichotomy of the prevalent Catholic faith, which finds itself oddly interwoven with Native belief in strange ways, as in the feast of Santiago held in Abel’s town. The conflict comes to a head in Tosamah, Priest of the Sun, who reveals that “In the beginning was the Word” is all that we need to know of the essential Truth. But by adding and dividing and multiplying the Word, the white man subtracts the Truth — the Truth that eludes Abel. Tosamah says of his grandmother, “She had learned that in words and in language, and there only, she could have whole and consummate being.”
House Made of Dawn is much like the life and land it portrays — mysterious and unyielding. There is little action here, but there is a mental and emotional landscape that is, like the backdrop, seared on the minds and hearts of those who experience it. Even the world cannot kill the Word and the rich inner life of a Tano.
26 February 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf