Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review: Winter in the Blood by James Welch

Release date: First published in 1974, Penguin Classics edition published in 2008
Author links: Goodreads
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 138
Purchase links: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

A contemporary classic from a major writer of the Native American renaissance, now adapted for film by Alex and Andrew Smith, starring Chaske Spencer and produced by Sherman Alexie

During his life, James Welch came to be regarded as a master of American prose, and his first novel, Winter in the Blood, is one of his most enduring works. The narrator of this beautiful, often disquieting novel is a young Native American man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Sensitive and self-destructive, he searches for something that will bind him to the lands of his ancestors but is haunted by personal tragedy, the dissolution of his once proud heritage, and Montana's vast emptiness. Winter in the Blood is an evocative and unforgettable work of literature that will continue to move and inspire anyone who encounters it.

What caught my attention with this book was one of the blurbs on the cover (I read an edition different from the Penguin classics one) from Charles R. Larson from The New Republic that says:
"For some readers this will be the most significant piece of Indian writing they have yet encountered; for others, it will simply be a brilliant novel."
Since my knowledge of Native American literature is presently very limited, I can say that I very much agree with Larson's blurb and the fact that this book was a significant piece of literature for me, especially because it has made me want to read more books of its kind.

Winter in the Blood was originally published in 1974 and it is the first novel of James Welch, a Native American writer who grew up in the Blackfeet and A'aninin cultures and is considered to be one of the the founding authors of the Native American Renaissance. The events of the novel take place on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and along the Hi-Line of Montana, which are places Welch himself spend his childhood at. 

The narrator of Winter in the Blood is a thirty something man who lives on the reservation with his mother, grandmother and his mother's new husband. While his home and work are at the reservation, he often finds himself from the bars of Havre and Malta, Montana, drinking away his problems and worries with other Indians and white men alike. He brings home a girl he calls his "wife" and after the few weeks finds out that she has ran away with some of his possessions, he is not quite sure how to react to the presence of a new man in the house (his mother's husband) and he spends his nights listening to the noises of the nature and the house, rather than sleeping. In addition, throughout the book he tries to come to terms with his own situation, as well as his grief over the deaths of his father and brother. 

My favorite parts of the novel were the moments when the narrator spends time with people much older than him - first his grandmother and then his blind neighbor. He recounts a tale from his grandmother's youth and this tale is further established via the blind neighbor and through these two tales, you get to see the differences between the reality of the Natives then and their reality now (meaning the time the novel was published). There are also flashbacks to the narrator's youth and his relationship between his father and his brother, which offer a lot to the overall character development and make it a bit easier to understand the narrator himself.

As I mentioned before, I am not overly familiar with Native American literature, but I have done a fair amount of research about the representation of Native Americans on film in connection to my post grad studies (I have looked into the different representations of Pocahontas in media in connection to my North American Studies course, I research Chris Eyre's Skins for my postcolonial theory class and I am now doing an essay about Native American representations on screen for my Constructions of Ethnicity class). Like some of the films I have watched recently, such as Chris Eyre's Skins, Welch's novel introduces the reader to a world and a set of characters that go beyond the stereotypes. Rather than writing about caricatures, Welch writes about well-developed human beings, who in addition to being human, also happen to be Indian. I have watched this documentary called Reel Injun for a couple of times now, and I have become more and more conscious of the stereotypes and the lack of representation Native Americans have faced in Hollywood, and how Hollywood has created a certain, very stereotypical perception, that still seems to have its hold. Winter in the Blood was my first attempt to extend my interest from screen representations from page, and I can definitely say that it won't be my last one and that I am already looking for similar books to read. If you have any recommendations, LET ME KNOW! 

Winter in the Blood was adapted to film in 2012. I haven't seen it myself yet, but I am definitely looking forward to watching it ASAP. 

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