Deconstruction of the American Western: Winter Counts

David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Winter Counts, Simon & Schuster, 2020.

A break from the Far East in May with this book, which I had to instantly acquire and read after hearing the author speak at a fascinating panel on social justice at Bristol CrimeFest. The author is descended from the Sicangu Lakota people, although he did not grow up on a reservation. His mother, however, was raised on the Rosebud reservation and he is a frequent visitor there, so he knows what he is talking about (and I’m not for a minute suggesting that authors have to write exclusively from their own experiences, but in this case you can feel that additional layer of depth – both of description and of feeling). Wanbli Weiden manages to sneak in social commentary and cultural references without making it sound like he’s just blurting forth all his research. It all feels like an integral part of the story. For example, here is a succinct yet very powerful description of the culinary delights on the reservation:

There were only three restaurants on the rez. A sandwich shop, with perpetually soggy cold cuts and wilted vegetables, the grill at the Depot bar, and JR’s Pizza, a shack selling something that vaguely resembled Italian food. I had a few bucks left… and wanted to treat Nathan, so I took him to the pizza place, which was his favorite. There was a flyer tacked outside the restaurant with a picture of a smiling young woman: MISSING, DONNA FLYING HAWK, HAVE YOU SEEN ME?A grungy rez dog sat on the sidewalk outside the place, eating what looked like a dead bird.

The story features Virgil Wounded Horse (how is that for a charactonym?). The classic lone ranger of the American Western is a vigilante but he is not the stereotypical white man. He is the local law enforcer on the reservation when the tribal council fails to act and the American legal system refuses to act. I was stunned to hear that Native American nations are not allowed to prosecute serious felony crimes that are committed on their own lands, but that federal authorities usually can’t be bothered to deal with these cases. So justice gets stuck in a no-man’s-land and criminals soon realise they can get away with rape, domestic violence, GBH or even murder, and the victims’ families’ only hope is to pay Virgil to enact some ‘eye for an eye’ type of justice.

Our first impression of Virgil is not really a positive one, as we assist at quite a visceral scene of him beating up a man. In fact, we might be tempted to agree with his former girlfriend Marie and her family that he is little more than a thug. However, as the story goes on, we realise that Virgil has a much softer core and even a certain moral compass. He is raising his orphaned nephew Nathan and is very worried about the future the boy might have on or outside the reservation. When a group of external drug-dealers start targeting the reservation, and he finds out that Nathan might be involved, Virgil is determined to eradicate that danger to his community. Along the way, he struggles to come to terms with his Native American heritage, which he considers more often a curse than a blessing. He has distanced himself from the Lakota traditions, while Marie is trying to bring them back for a new generation.

The plot itself is exciting and at one point nail-bitingly tense, where you aren’t sure who is going to survive. But that wasn’t my main reason for reading this – I was fascinated by the insight into an entirely different world and way of life, and angered by the discrimination that Native Americans face. The author doesn’t sugarcoat the corruption, drunkenness, drug-taking and sense of hopelessness on the reservation, but he also shows how some individuals still believe in making a difference. But then you know that I like my crime fiction to be full of social commentary and to make me think without being too preachy. This novel achieves that in spades.

A very moving story, and the writing often transcends its action-heavy roots; the language, although deliberately simple, becomes poetic and powerful:

I sat there, and the wind stopped. The sun set, but I remained. I didn’t want to get up and face what I’d almost certainly lost. What I’d lost and still had yet to lose. The country of the living was gone to me, and I knew that I’d entered a different space, one that offered no solace but only the wind and the cold and the frost. Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude, but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.

The title, Winter Counts, refers to the traditional Lakota calendar system, where each year is represented by a pictograph showing the most significant event that occurred during the past four seasons of the year, with winter often being the most difficult and cruel season for the community.

Lone Dog’s Winter Counts for the period 1800-1871, from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Emma reviewed the book last summer, which made me put it instantly on my TBR list on Goodreads, but it took seeing the author in person to actually push me to do anything about it. I’m so glad I read it and I can’t wait for the next book in the series, which should be out by the end of this year.