The passing of author M. Scott Momaday (31 January 2024) brings to mind his masterpiece, the 1969 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, House Made of Dawn. This lyrical achievement depicts Native Americans’ experience as they compete with the seemingly inimitable grandeur of the prior generation and their current conflict with being authentic selves inside the dominant white culture. Momaday communicates this struggle through a narrative comprised of powerful imagery related to the reader through an impressive, if dizzying, array of stream of conscious perspectives.
House Made of Dawn’s main story follows the degradation of its protagonist, New Mexico Native Abel, who has returned home from the horrors of World War II in a state of shellshock-inspired drunkenness and disillusion. Through Abel’s and the other characters’ travails, Momaday casts his central, reoccurring image: an all-powerful force overarching a lone individual. Though the readability of this volume can seem daunting, the key to meaning in each vertiginous passage is to ask the following: What is the force bearing down on the individual, and what does their response tell us about that person?
One of the forces bearing down House Made of Dawn‘s protagonists is that of the natural world. We see this with an early description of the landscape from Abel’s perspective. “But the great feature of the valley was its size. It was almost too great for the eye to hold, strangely beautiful and full of distance…..”
If the natural domineering grandeur intimidates the Native characters, it stupefies the whites. With the help of Abel’s grandfather, Francisco, a local legend, Abel pulls himself together enough to do some odd jobs for the listless and beautiful L.A. tourist Angela St. John, who sees the sky as “empty…and eternal beyond all hope.” This natural omnipresence threatens to devour Angela:
“There was no longer a high white house…but a black organic mass the night had heaved up, even as long ago the canyon itself had been wrenched out of time, delineated in red and white and purple rock, lost each day out of its color and shape, and only the awful, massive presence of it remained, and the silence. It was no longer the chance place of her visitation…but now the dominion of her next day and the day after and as far ahead as she cared to see.”
When his work for Angela is finished, Abel enters a contest in horsemanship but is humiliated by a giant albino, Juan Reyes. Abel returns to Angela’s house, where she solicits him for sex. During their coupling, the overarching natural force shape-shifts for Angela into Abel’s body, which she submits to like a supplicant in fear and trembling: “the weight of his shoulders and chest bore slowly down upon her until it seemed to her that she should be crushed beneath him….He was dark and massive above her.”
For Angela, Abel remains superimposed over the infinite rather than as a like-individual preyed upon by those same forces she is pressured by. In doing so, Angela continually places Abel in conventional Indian tropes. She sees Abel as a stoic Native with special powers of sight. She compares the way he looks at her to Cochiti corn dancers she’d seen earlier. Angela admires their ability “to see beyond the landscape, beyond every shape and shadow and color, that was to see nothing. That was to be free and finished, complete, spiritual.”
Angela is repulsed by her own body and the unborn baby inside, she longs for a death that could burn her away without the mess of natural decay. Thus, it makes sense that she longs for and romanticizes the gnostic freedom she thinks these Native people have from the body and the natural world. She admires their easy access to the infinite. Angela stays static in this frame of mind.
Not long after their tryst, Abel vengefully kills the Albino in a fight, which shunts Abel into six years in prison. He is released in Los Angeles, and a subsequent life of incoherence: binge-drinking and brawling, leads to his near-death mangling at the hands of unknown assailants. Angela reemerges to visit Abel in the hospital. She retells him a story she’s been telling her son of a half-bear Indian brave who leads and saves his people — a brave none other than her idea of Abel.
Angela’s telling of this story betrays how she continues to set Abel within her own stereotypical narrative of the stoic Native. In doing so, she can’t understand or see Abel’s alienation, existential nausea, and dire need to return to equilibrium with the natural world and his place within it. In response to her story, Abel turns away. In the end, Angela falls into the same category as “the other, latecoming things…the dog and the cat—these have an alien and inferior aspect, a poverty of vision and instinct, by which they are estranged from the wild land, and made tentative.”
In his New Mexico hometown, Walatowa, Abel feels a connection with nature early on, a connection made possible via his grandfather Francisco’s tutelage and his own intuitive character. However, it should be noted that the natural world impresses him with “dread” and “anguish”.
Abel’s upbringing has its tragedy: his mother and brother die early on, and his father is unknown. Grandfather Francisco is rumored to have been “sired” by the priest, Fray Nicolas. However murky his lineage, Abel experiences harmony and success as a young man in Walatowa. From Angela’s perspective and his own, he’s described as a perfect physical specimen. In a mesmerizing passage, Momaday describes Abel catching a female golden eagle in a feat of strength. His eagle is the big catch of the day. The feat is similar in perfection to Francisco’s bear hunt decades earlier.
But even in this, there’s remorse. Indeed, another reoccurring motif is disappointment after a feat of strength, but none more apparent than when Abel looks at his eagle later that night. He sees it “bound and helpless… drab and shapeless in the moonlight, too large and ungainly for flight. The sight of it filled him with shame and disgust. He took hold its throat in the darkness and cut off its breath.”
This scene foreshadows Abel’s disfigurement and his reflection of his body in its hobbled state, also in the moonlight. Only whereas dark feelings were momentary in his youth, defeat has come to be the defining feeling of Abel’s adult life.
Because of his taciturn and instinctual nature, Abel would is unhelpful narrator, which is why Momaday operates in third-person omniscient – distant when Abel is center stage. This contrast the close narration told through Angela, Francisco, and a lively cast of other characters. Abel’s time in Los Angeles, for instance, is narrated by Benally—an affable, urbanized Navajo who has taken Abel under his wing. This authorial detachment from the protagonist underscores House Made of Dawn‘s larger theme – that Abel is estranged from his own existence.
Abel’s disconnection from life has its inception in WWII – the white man’s mechanized war. After Abel remembers his eagle-capturing success as a young man, Momaday describes Abel’s consciousness about the war:
“This (the eagle capturing, his youth, the bus ride to war)—everything in advance of his going (to war)—he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind.”
Abel’s deep detachment from his life has begun. Abel can only describe one scene from the war:
“He saw the machine. It rose up behind the hill, black and massive, looming there in front of the sun. He saw it swell, deepened and take shape on the skyline, as if it were some upheaval of the earth…It seemed apart from the land; its great iron hull lay out against the timber and the sky, and the center of its weight hung away from the ridge…”
The tank is described with similar language as Angela’s description of the natural forces coming out of the canyon to devour her. Though the tank is man-made, Abel experiences its reality as metaphysical evil. Similar to Angela, Abel feels, perhaps for the first time, paralysis.
A fellow soldier’s testimony shows that Abel springs into action and taunts the tank with maniacal glee. But Abel doesn’t remember any of this; in shell-shocked amnesia, his fearlessness in the face of annihilation remains fragmented from his consciousness.
Early in House Made of Dawn, during his return home from the War to Walatowa, he regains a sense of tranquility that is short-lived. His shaming at the hands of the Albino drives him to Angela. Though she perceives him as the “emotionless Native”, the reader infers that Abel turns to Angela for comfort after his defeat. If so, this does little to ease the spurn, as Abel goes on to slay the Albino, jettisoning him to prison, then upon release, Los Angeles.
Abel’s post-war pattern established in Walatowa continues in Los Angeles. Not long after his release, Abel is shamed again—this time in an encounter with Tosamah, an imposing Native spiritualist and intellectual. Tosamah pointedly notes Abel’s inability – or unwillingness – to assimilate into the modern world. Humiliated, Abel turns to another white woman’s body for comfort; this time, it’s Milly, a damaged but loving social worker. In the white man’s land, Abel is bested by a Native; in Native land, Abel is bested by a white man. In the face of the irony and shame, Abel descends precipitously, losing his job of menial work, his friendships with Milly and Benally, and his bodily cohesion.
in his storytelling, the deepest Momaday goes into Abel’s perspective is when he’s most vulnerable: as he writhes in pain after a beating that causes his disfigurement. Here, we get the clearest window into Abel’s point of view with his struggle against the infinite problem of his own existence:
“His body, like his mind, had turned on him; it was his enemy.”
The pervading evil in House Made of Dawn – previously externalized in the form of the tank – becomes internalized after months of drinking to ease the pain of his severe beating and to delude his broken mind. The spiritual paralysis he experienced with the tank manifests into physical paralysis. He recalls the white hand of the murdered Albino; the hand has trans-mutated into his own hands, which he can no longer use. Deep inside his pain, Abel experiences a moment of clarity. He remembers a gruelling harvest race his grandfather Francisco had competed in and won:
“The runners after evil ran… in the way of least resistance, no resistance… They (the old men) were whole and indispensable in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe…They ran with great dignity and calm, not in the hope of anything but hopelessly; neither in fear nor hatred nor despair of evil, but simply in recognition and with respect. Evil was. Evil was abroad in the night; they must venture out to the confrontation; they must reckon dues and divide the world.”
This memory helps Abel recall how to cope with the infinite. Furthermore, “Now, there, the world was open at his back. He had lost his place. He had been long ago at the center, had known where he was, lost his way…” Thus, the rest of House Made of Dawn‘s story is about Abel regaining his way.
We’re told through Francisco’s perspective that he taught Abel and his brother that “they must live according to the sun appearing, for only then could they reckon where they were, where all things were, in time.” In doing so, Francisco imparts to the boys—especially to Abel—a spiritual map to find his way back to his center. And so, as Abel’s final rite for his beloved grandfather, he must complete a dawn run—a ritual, we learn, that is not only to wish for good hunting but also to chase away evil.
“He (Abel) came among them (the runners), and they huddled in the cold together, waiting, and the pale light before the dawn rose up in the valley. A single cloud lay over the world, heavy and still. It lay out upon the black mesa, smudging out the margin and spilling over the lee. But at the saddle there was nothing. There was only the clear pool of eternity. They held their eyes upon it, waiting and, too slow and various to see, the void began to deepen and to change: pumice, and pearl, and mother-of-pearl, and the pale and brilliant blush of orange and of rose. And then the deep hanging rim ran with fire and the sudden cold flare of the dawn struck upon the arc, and the runners sprang away.”
House of Dawn‘s varying motifs come together in this final scene: light emerging from darkness, and a lone individual beneath a gargantuan, eternal element. If it’s a race, then Abel loses; he is depicted as alone, running after the others, whereas Francisco was alone because he was winning, the others behind him. As with earlier feats of strength, the reverent tone is undercut by disappointment. However, this final act of Abel’s harmonizes with his forebears’ example. Abel is victorious in that the dawn run models a way of being in the face of the all-consuming infinite: in motion and fearless, yet with respectful acknowledgment.
Though House Made of Dawn is a slim volume, there’s still much that could be said. Native women remain shadowy mysteries that elude the men. Within the larger narrative, many stories that alternately obfuscate and elucidate the storytellers’ realities are told. Religious forces compete, as do individuals within groups. But Momaday leaves analytical minds—perhaps particularly Anglo-Saxon ones— a warning through the words of Tosamah: Leave off attempts to circumscribe reality.
“On every side of him (the white man) there are words by the millions, an unending succession of pamphlets and papers, letters and books, bills and bulletins, commentaries and conversations. He has diluted and multiplied the Word and words have begun to close in upon him…It may be that he will perish by the Word.”
Even so, Abel’s friend Benally disarms with this observation: “They have a lot of words, and you know they mean something, but you don’t know what and your own words are no good because they’re not the same; they’re different and they’re the only words you’ve got.”
Though a critics’ words may fall short of attesting to House Made of Dawn’s achievement, the story’s relevance will likely continue as Native persons continue to wrestle against the dichotomies of urban anomie vs. rural stagnancy and white people like Angela, who continue to be keenly interested in Natives, while failing to fully see their humanity. These are ongoing struggles that Momaday’s work can guide readers through into the light of realization.