Winner of the Pulizer Prize in 1969, this novel is considered responsible for ushering in a renaissance of Native American writing. Loosely based on real life experience on the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, it centers around the story of Abel, who returns from World War II drunk and devastated. He was raised by Francisco, a hunter who instilled in him the traditions of his people, but now suffers from a lame leg and old age. Back from the war, Abel stabs and kills a white man, whom he thinks is a witch. Abel is sent to prison for the murder; once he is out, he is befriended by Ben and the social worker Milly, who try to help him adjust to the world and work outside, though they are ultimately unsuccessful, as his drinking increases and he is beat up mercilessly, to the point of hospitalization. Ultimately, Abel returns to his grandfather, who tell him stories; the novel ends with Abel running in the race of the dead, a ritual Francisco had told him about. Francisco dies at the novel’s close.
I read Leslie Marmo Silko’s 1977 Ceremony before reading this novel, which was obviously a huge influence on Silko’s novel. I ultimately prefer Silko’s book, which elaborates on the structural possibilities that House Made of Dawn works with, particularly the non-chronological structure and the inclusion of poetry and chant within the novel; both of these are the kind of initiative texts which function as a form of reader initiation in the very act of reading them. House Made of Dawn calls attention to both the significance and limitations of language within its narrative, not only in incorporating poetic language, dreams, and myth, but also through direct consideration of language. My favorite part of the novel was Tosamah’s sermon on the significance of “The Word” at the Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission, as he acknowledges both that “in words and in language, and there only, [can one] have whole and consummate being” (83) as well as that the Apostle John had stumbled onto Truth when he wrote that “In the beginning was the Word,” but that he had “diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in upon him” when he continued on that the Word was with God, and the Word was God (84). This lecture speaks directly to the challenge of the novel, to convey ineffable experience through words.