James Welch’s Winter in the Blood is his first novel, written in 1974, after previously releasing a book of poetry titled, Riding the Earthboy 40. A Blackfeet/Gros Ventre/Irish man, Welch won several awards for his writing, including an Emmy for Last Stand at Little Bighorn, throughout his illustrious career as a writer. He died in 2003, leaving five novels, one non-fiction work, and three books of poetry.
Winter in the Blood begins its first lines filled with death. The first paragraph is filled with heavy imagery of barrenness and isolation, death and decay. There is “burnt grass”; the “roof had fallen in and the mud between the logs had fallen out”; “leaving a bare gray skeleton”; and “a rectangle of barbed wire held the graves of all the Earthboys.” Immediately, as well, an image of a white man marks him as an aggressor, violent, and jealous; a white man who displaces the narrator and fashions the narrator as enemy.
“Coming home was not easy anymore.” The narrator finds himself at odds with his own home, his own identity on his own land. A sense of apathy fills the narrator which adds to the isolation: “I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years.” The countryside adds to the “distance” too, “deep as it was empty, and the people accepted and treated each other with distance.”
Grief, isolation, and “otherness” marks the introduction to both the book and the character of the narrator in Welch’s Winter in the Blood. Throughout the book we’ll find this gray world colored a bit more through experience, other characters, and story.
The basic plot of the novel is that the narrator, of whom I don’t think is ever named though I could have just missed it, separates his time between his mother’s ranch and small towns in Montana, looking for his girlfriend who stole his gun and electric razor. Within that storyline, we, along with the narrator, meet new people and take part in new adventures. Though the narrator is older, 32-years-old to be exact, this novel is something of a coming-of-age story for him. Stunted growth because of greif, the narrator finds difficult challenges ahead in the constant alcoholism and fights and displacements which establish growth.
Women come and go, often offering insight or introducing change in the narrator, from his mother to his “wife” (Cree girl who was living with the narrator before the book’s opening) to his grandma with failing health to a white barmaid and a one-night-stand named Marlene. There is misogyny in the book and general mistreatment of women despite there being heavy implications that women are the strong gender, that they are stronger and more resiliant than the narrator.
Decay of relationships continues over and over bringing fights and destruction along with them. The narrator eventually finds a ride with a white family back to his mother’s ranch. The white family echoes the narrator’s opening thoughts about the countryside: “The man and his wife in the front seat spoke about the countryside as if it were dead, as if all life had become extinct.” The narrator here is reaching bottom and a change is needed.
The biggest turn in the book comes with the introduction of an old Indian living by himself. Yellow Calf is reintroduced to the narrator after several years of neither man having seen the other. Though Yellow Calf is a known figure around the area, he keeps to himself. The narrator’s father, First Raise, who was found dead several years prior in the same area where the book opens, used to bring the narrator to see Yellow Calf but the narrator hasn’t returned since his father’s death. Yellow Calf, through stories and revelations, introduces color to the black and white world of the narrator.
Previously, the narrator sat with his mother where they reminisced. The narrator often found himself remembering events wrongly and remembering people wrongly. What he thought his father did was actually his mother. However, he did learn more about his father and how much his father actually cared for the narrator and his deceased brother Mose.
Yellow Calf fills in more details, like the narrator’s mother first did, by reintroducing the history of their family and dropping a bombshell regarding the family and the grandma, something the narrator didn’t see coming but wasn’t too surprised to with the new information.
After their discussion, life begins to start forming in the narrator. Where there was self-destruction and loneliness, now there are glimpses of hope. The past, a reintroduction of the past, begins to shape the narrator’s future.
The novel culminates with animals, which have been a major theme of freedom throughout the novel, acting as confessionals. Bird, the narrator’s aging horse, offers the narrator freedom from his brother’s death when they were younger herding cattle. A cow stuck in mud offers a coming to grips with the narrator’s issues with his mother and maybe women in general. Freedom is the culmination of the novel.
The final lines, before the epilogue which describes the grandma’s burial, continue to portray the narrator’s hope, redemption, and life out of death in that he meditates: “Some people, I thought, will never know how pleasant it is to be distant in a clean rain, the driving rain of a summer storm. It’s not like you’d expect, nothing like you’d expect.” The cleanliness of the rain and the previous mention of the smells of alf alfa and other growing, new birth at this time of year speak to new life for the narrator.
Through effective details, storytelling, and humor, Welch produces a masterful look at the hopelessness that sometimes affects Indians on the reservation and how the past survivance of Indians merged with the modern community often offer new life. Animals and the environment are proffered as means to redemption as well. There is so much more hidden in the depths of this novel that would only make this review so much longer. I’ve left out a lot, but the fun is in finding out what others thought of the novel and the imagery and meanings within.
Read through the novel. You won’t regret it. Then write down your thoughts and share them with me. I’d love to read them.