House Made of Dawn | Critical Review by Marshall Sprague

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of House Made of Dawn.
This section contains 637 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Marshall Sprague

SOURCE: "Anglos and Indians," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1968, p. 5.

Sprague is an American journalist, critic, and nonfiction writer who has written about the history of the American West. In the following review, he offers praise for House Made of Dawn.

This first novel [House Made of Dawn], as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware, is the work of a young Kiowa Indian who teaches English and writes poetry at the University of California in Santa Barbara. That creates a difficulty for a reviewer right away. American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities either. But we cannot be patronizing. N. Scott Momaday's book is superb in its own right.

It is the old story of the problem of mixing Indians and Anglos. But there is a quality of revelation here as the author presents the heart-breaking effort of his hero to live in two worlds. Have you ever been to the Rio Grande country of New Mexico and wandered through the adobe Pueblo village there? It is a frustrating experience. The long-haired Indians with their blankets and headbands are not hostile—just indifferent. One returns to the comfort of Santa Fe feeling vaguely discontented and wondering why everything Anglo seems callow and obvious compared with this ancient culture that doesn't even bother to pave the streets.

Young Abel comes back to San Ysidro to resume the ancient ways of his beloved long-haired grandfather, Francisco. Abel is full of fears that he has relaxed his hold on these ways, after living like an Anglo in the Army. He is our tortured guide as we see his Indian world of pollen and rain, of houses made of dawn, of feasts and rituals to placate the gods, of orchards and patches of melons and grapes and squash, of beautiful colors and marvelous foods such as piki, posole, loaves of sotobalau, roasted mutton and fried bread. It is a wantless "world of wonder and exhilarating vastness."

The task of seeing it is made easier for us by the grandfather, who symbolizes the long and static continuity of Pueblo tradition. He shows us the richness of the Indian mixture through New Mexico's ages. The Jemez of San Ysidro have Navajo and Sia and Domingo and Isleta relatives—even a strain of Bahkyush, who fled from the East long ago, bringing to San Ysidro the finest of rain makers and eagle hunters. The Mexican priest, Father Olguin, is also a symbol of tradition. He is devoting his life to understanding these poetic people, just as other Catholic priests did in 17th-century New Mexico. He can smile as they smiled when he notes how they rank his shrine of Our Lady of the Angels second in spiritual importance to the adjoining kiva.

Abel's troubles begin at once. He has a brief and lyrical love affair with a white woman from California seeking some sort of truth at San Ysidro. Then he runs afoul of Anglo jurisprudence, which has no laws covering Pueblo ethics. He is paroled to a Los Angeles relocation center and copes for a time with that society, neither Anglo nor Indian. He attends peyote sessions; he tries to emulate his Navajo roommate, who almost accepts the glaring lights and treadmill jobs, the ugliness of the city and the Anglo yearning to own a Cadillac. Abel cannot "almost" cope. Because of his contempt, a sadistic cop beats him nearly to death. But he gets home in time to carry on tradition for his dying grandfather.

There is plenty of haze in the telling of this tale—but that is one reason why it rings so true. The mysteries of cultures different from our own cannot be explained in a short novel, even by an artist as talented as Mr. Momaday.

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This section contains 637 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Marshall Sprague
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Marshall Sprague from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.