Friday, October 2, 2020

Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

If you picture Native Americans, what do you see? Do you see a people decimated by systemic racism, alcohol and drugs, and a deep and grinding poverty? Do you see shamans, powwows, and defenders of the Earth? Do you see dusty reservations and casinos? Do you see missing and murdered indigenous women, failed by a federal judicial system that dismisses their duty, leaving criminals unpunished or entirely unprosecuted and victims unavenged? All of these things are true and yet not even close to a full picture of the many different groups who fall under this designation. David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, has written a riveting novel that confronts and enlarges on life on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Winter Counts is a thriller, a crime novel, and a Lakota cultural examination.

Virgil Wounded Horse is half Lakota, a recovering alcoholic, and a vigilante. When justice isn't done by federal or tribal courts, people pay Virgil to redress the wrongs. He punishes the rapists, thieves, and wife beaters that the law ignores. When Ben Short Bear, a councilman running for Tribal President, contacts him to investigate the sudden influx of heroin into the reservation, Virgil isn't sure he wants to get involved even though the payout would be big. Then Virgil's own nephew, 14 year old Nathan, who Virgil is raising after his sister's death, overdoses and almost dies. Now Virgil has no choice but to get involved. He and his ex, Maria Short Bear, Ben's daughter, head to Denver after the small time criminal who has hooked up with the big boys to bring heroin onto the reservation. This trip embroils Virgil and Maria in something much bigger, more insidious, and more personal than they ever imagined.

Virgil narrates his own story, remaining clear eyed about both the good and ill of his community on the reservation. He was bullied as a child for his mixed race and he still sees firsthand the economic disparity, the accepted corruption, and the failure in leadership that exists but he also sees the perseverence and connection of a community trying to save its young people, to improve everyone's lives, and to try to honor and maintain their culture, even if he himself is frequently skeptical of that culture. In Virgil, Weiden has created a character who recognizes the wrongs done to the Lakota people and who is invested in righting those wrongs in whatever way he can. He is both an insider and an outsider, which allows the reader to learn and grow with him. The descriptions of the secondary characters and life on the reservation fully round out the story. This is not really a thriller in the heart pounding sense, rather it is one that carefully peels back each layer of the plot deliberately, until the depth of the corruption and the fullness of the novel is exposed in all its complexity.

The book is a fast and engrossing read that feels like it could be the first in a series. It doesn't flinch from the truth of the ways in which the government and white American have failed the Native population or from the ways its own people do the same to themselves. It is thought provoking, violent, and gripping. Those who like their novels gritty and realistic will quite enjoy this.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts