If you’re looking for a book with a linear narrative, a clear and present protagonist, and a consistent point of view, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn is not the book you’re looking for. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for occasionally beautiful writing, and an unusual style of story-telling, this 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner may be just the thing.
House Made of Dawn is the story of Abel (an obviously symbolic name), a young Native American from somewhere in southern California. The story proceeds in jumps from 1949 to 1952, during which Abel leaves the grandfather who raised him, has a brief affair with a white woman living outside of town, kills a “white man” who is an albino, not an Anglo, spends time in jail for the murder, spends more time lost in Los Angeles, and finally, returns home, the prodigal, just before his grandfather dies.
Simple enough, yet Abel is rarely on stage, and even more rarely the point of view character. More often he’s someone who exists in another character’s world, and maybe the character spends time talking directly to the reader about his (the character’s life) and Abel, making it often difficult to determine who Abel really is, why he’s in that particular place, and where he’s headed. If this was Momaday’s way of showing the dislocation of the modern Native American trying to make his way through both his ancestral world and the modern one, he succeeds by repeatedly dislocating the reader.
The land is almost as important a character to Momaday as Abel is. The author spends pages and pages in description of the land and the weather, and it’s here that I found some of Momaday’s most beautiful work. His three-page description of the canyon outside of the town he grew up near is among the best I’ve read in a very long time.
And so the book makes its slow, inexorable, yet indefinite way to the uncertain end of Abel’s journey there and back. It’s perhaps not surprising that the Pulitzer Committee chose this highly “literary” work of a man who considered himself primarily a poet for its prize. Whether any given reader will enjoy it is another matter entirely.