He was the first native American novelist to focus on the plights of the contemporary Native American.
The supporting materials in the back of the paperback edition of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1966) do a fine job of explaining the unique importance of the work culturally, within the broader context of postwar American fiction. (Very helpful – and the list of additional resources was much appreciated too.)
House Made of Dawn is set in the Southwest, in what is now viewed as northwestern New Mexico. The Pueblo people call this world of cliffs and canyons the “center of Creation”.
The novel’s focus is Abel, who inhabits this landscape wholly and inextrciably. Momaday imagines and establishes Abel in “the cultural and physical context of Walatoa, just as Stephen Dedalus, say, must be fashioned in the mould of Dublin”.
Divided into four parts, the work is fragmented deliberately and methodically. Readers move through The Longhair Wahatowa (Cañon de San Diego, 1945), The Priest of the Sun (LA, 1952), The Night Chanter (LA, 1952) and The Dawn Runner (Wahatowa, 1952).
Time and space shift. Identity shifts too. “He did not know who his father was. His father was a Navajo, they said, or a Sia, or an Isleta, an outsider anyway, which made him and his mother and Vidal somehow foreign and strange.”
Sometimes shifting develops into obliteration.
“The Bahkyush immigrants brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs, but even in this moment of deep hurt and humiliation they thought of themselves as a people. They carried four things that should serve thereafter to signal who they were: a sacred flute, the bull and horse masks of Pecos; and the little wooden statue of their patroness Maria de los Angeles, whom they called Porcingula. Now, after the intervening years and genearions, the ancient blood of this forgotten tribe still ran in the veins of man.”
The idea of what we are at the core of ourselves is at the heart of the novel, but because this is threatened and attacked, the work is structured in parts not wholes. Sometimes the most important pars of the story are the spaces.
“And the simple act of listening is crucial to the concept of language, more crucial even than reading and writing, and language in turn is crucial to human society.”
How we express ourselves is integral to our concepts of self and to how we understand the world around us. Consider how a substance can be defined in sacred or chemical terms, how it can be viewed playfully or medically.
“It contains nine narcotic alkaloids of the isoquinoline series, some of them strychnine-like in physiological action, the rest morphine-like. Physiologically, the salient characteristic of peyote is its production of visual hallucinations or color visions, as well as kinesthetic, olfactory, and auditory derangements.’ Or, to put it another way, that little old woolly booger turns you on like a light, man. Daddy peyote is the vegetal representation of the sun.”
So it’s unsurprising that the language and structure of the work is vitally important to understanding the characters’ stories. Reading is almost always disorienting, sometimes upsetting. Key aspects of selfhood have been devastated, directly and indirectly; readers have to make sense of the fragments.
Nonetheless, some things endure. In particular, the relationship with the land. The descriptions of the landscape are simple but powerful.
“They must know it as they knew the shape of their hands, always and by heart. The sun rose up on the black mesa at a different place each day. It began there, at a point on the central slope, standing still for the solstice, and ranged all the days southward across the rise and fall of the long plateau, drawing closer by the measure of mornings and moons to the lee, and back again. They must know the long journey of the sun on the black mesa….”
In discussing his intent, N. Scott Momaday shared his concern about “the way we treat our environment. We haven’t done a very good job in protecting our planet. We have failed to recognize the spiritual life of the earth”.
He also observed what was missing in the modern world and paid homage to it in his writing: “I saw people who were deeply involved in their traditional life, in the memories of their blood. They had, as far as I could see, a certain strength and beauty that I find missing in the modern world at large. I like to celebrate that involvement in my writing.”
Although he experienced many of the same hardships and challenges that his characters face in House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday has found a way to embrace his fragmented identity and shape it for himself and for his readers.
“I grew up in two worlds and straddle both those worlds even now. It has made for confusion and a richness in my life. I’ve been able to deal with it reasonably well, I think, and I value it.”
House Made of Dawn contains that confusion and richness as well: it’s a work to be valued and admired. (I’d been wanting to read this for many years; Caroline’s selection of it for her War and Literature Readalong secured the deal for me.)
Have you read this one? Is it on your TBR?