Friday, August 31, 2012

From the bookshelf: Winter in the Blood by James Welch

Well, I'm back -- maybe a little fuzzy-headed still (some might argue that I'm always fuzzy-headed, of course), but ready and eager to get back to my regular Montana Headlines publication schedule. I've not been idle when it comes to writing, and as things get published, I'll of course provide notices and links. But I've also had the chance to get caught up on a little reading.

Winter in the Blood was Montana author James Welch’s first novel. It originally came out almost 40 years ago, and has tended to live under the shadow of Welch’s later and more famous books like Fools Crow and Killing Custer. Before returning to the book, though, how about a classic Montana Headlines digression?

One of the privileges I give myself as publisher, editor, staff writer, publicist, webmaster, chief cook, and bottle washer of Montana Headlines is to do reviews of books that aren’t recent releases – or that aren’t necessarily even in print. I’ve always wondered: why wouldn’t publications want to do some reflective reviews about outstanding books that have been out for a while rather than only doing immediate reviews of recently published books – some of which might be mediocre? Maybe the publication has even already reviewed the book – how about a retrospective review by a second reviewer some years down the line?

I remember as a young and enthusiastic writer, I once wrote a long review essay on the western ranching experience. The three books that I built my essay around, as I recall, were Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (a magnificent book on the whole topic of water in the West), Sharman Russell’s Kill the Cowboy, and another book about ranching in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, the name of which now escapes me.

I was pretty happy with how it had turned out, so I wasn’t completely surprised when I soon got a phone call from the book editor of the magazine I’d sent it to, and for whom I’d done some other reviews. Back in those days before email, it wasn’t unusual to have an editor call you up to say he wanted to use your piece and to handle some straight-forward editing on the spot over the phone. The first question from him this time, after saying he liked it, was “what were the dates of publication on those three books?” I had the books ready to hand, and told him. All were recent, as in within the last few years, but none were true “recent releases.” Bottom line was that he loved the essay and it was perfect for his magazine, but it just wouldn’t work because they only reviewed recently released trade books.

I was obviously disappointed, but after that I learned to play by the unforgiving rules of the book review game. (I wish I could still find a copy of that manuscript today – I happen to know the editor of this site called Montana Headlines, and I think he’d publish it.) One understands why it is the way it is – a magazine doesn’t want to be thought to be behind the times compared to its peers and competitors that reviewed it a year or more ago, and the book publishers are interested in promoting their most recent releases, since the most profitable thing in book sales are newly released hardbacks.

Still, the whole process is a bit of a shame, I’ve always thought. I don’t know about anyone else, but unless I’m doing a paid review for publication, I rarely buy and read a book immediately when it first comes out in hardback. As I’ve mentioned before here on MH, books tend to sit and marinate on my shelves for a time, ripening like fine wines until it seems like just the right time to read them.

Well, enough of the digression, and on to Winter in the Blood. I was put on to this book by my friend Ed Kemmick. (At the risk of ruining Ed’s reputation, I have to thank him for his moral support over the years that I’ve been writing Montana Headlines – I’ve been saved many a time from posting some seriously nasty sarcasm in the heat of a political fray by the question "WWET?" niggling in the back of my mind. (That’s “What Would Ed Think?)

Ed knows as much about Montana literature as anyone I know, and when he announced that he was placing Winter in the Blood in his Montana literary pantheon alongside A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky, I knew I would need to read it sooner rather than later.

In short: it has been some time since I have read anything as remarkable as Winter in the Blood – the fact that it was Welch’s first novel only makes the achievement more impressive. At first glace, it seems that what Welch did was to give us a gritty and unsentimental piece of realist literature set on and around the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. In the first paragraph, the protagonist is taking a leak in the weeds near an abandoned cabin with a fallen-in roof while “tumbleweeds, stark as bone, rocked in a hot wind against the west wall.” The reader can’t claim not to be warned that he is in for a long, dusty, and depressing ride. And yet before the first short chapter is done, Welch lets us know that he will be taking us a bit deeper:

…the distance I felt came not from country or people, it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon. And that was why I had no particular feelings toward my mother and grandmother. Or the girl who had come to live with me.

We don’t meet that girl for the longest time – she is already gone, headed to town with the young man’s .30-.30 rifle and his electric razor – things she could sell for a quick buck. While it is never spelled out what the money was going to be spent on, there is never really much mystery. Most of the book seems to peer through an ever-present alcoholic haze.

There is much to commend a young man who would portray unflinchingly the ravages that the white man’s firewater has wreaked on Indian Country, but Welch transcends the stereotype with an existential depressing fog that is so unrelenting that one begins to see the perpetually drunk state of the characters not as gritty realism, but as a metaphorical portrayal of the Native American state – never completely at home, never in their own reality, always vulnerable and potential victims for those who aren't in that altered state.

Yet whenever Welch briefly lifts the fog – most notably in flashback chapters in which the protagonist is spending a day with his beloved brother and father, working on their ranch – one sees piercing glimpses of what things could and should have been like for Native Americans, even when having to accommodate life with the white man.

There is no whining in Winter in the Blood, no playing the victim. Even the rare clear statement of what the looming presence of the white man means to the protagonist is laced with a cool detachment. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such a brilliant, subtle, and multi-layered portrayal of the destruction let loose on our Indian populations -- and of the complicity (willing and helpless) of Indians themselves in their own cultural losses. There are no cliché’s – no tantrums.

The place where Welch had gripped me emotionally -- and where it was clear I wouldn't be released from that grip until I had finished the book -- was in a flashback scene where he and his brother are sitting eating the breakfast their father had fixed them before a hard day’s work rounding up cows. Out of nowhere, in the middle of a matter-of-fact description of the morning, came the simple, powerful sentence: “He loved us.”

I realized that I had read most of the book by this point and had yet to encounter love of any kind in the protagonist’s life -- only alcohol and emptiness and betrayal and exploitative relationships that would make anyone cynical.

And yet, in that instant, the reader knows that the protagonist knew exactly what love was, had experienced it, and had lost it. Far from being in an alcoholic fog of disorientation, the protagonist’s pain suddenly becomes excruciating for us precisely because we know that he knows... He has memories of real love, and isn't about to stumble toward any fake substitute.

The trips to Havre and Malta, on the surface, seem like just more dusty, sweaty realism. But as archetypes loom, unbidden, by Welch’s spare and precise prose, it feels more like a journey to hell and back (as the place where Indians from the country would more often than not end up drunk, perhaps beaten up and robbed, it really is pretty apt metaphor for journeying to hell.) At times, as he searched for the girl who had briefly come to live with him and then robbed him and headed back to town, I wondered if Welch was consciously tapping into the myth of Orpheus journeying to the underworld to try to bring back Euridyce, his love.

Probably not, but Winter in the Blood is that kind of book – one where you know that even though you’re reading the text and discerning subtext, there are yet more layers, simmering beneath the surface, perhaps readying for a volcanic explosion. One where you are certain you encountered this story before – maybe in Greek mythology, maybe in Shakespeare… -- something by a master of portraying universals of the human condition. Or maybe not -- maybe you're just reading James Welch for the first time.

Read the book. See if you agree that it belongs in your Montana literary pantheon – it is certainly in mine, and it won’t be the last James Welch book I read and talk about here on Montana Headlines.

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