James Welch: Winter in the Blood

Welch, James (2008), Winter in the Blood, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-310522-0

Books about Native Americans, especially books written by Natives are often prone to simple sentimentality. There’s absolutely none of that in James Welch’s starkly astonishing debut novel Winter in the Blood (1974). Welch is both of Blackfoot and Gros Ventre ancestry, as is his narrator. His previous book, the poetry collection Riding the Earthboy 40, was set in the same area, a vaguely unpleasant, loveless place. As Winter in the Blood opens, this narrator, who will stay nameless throughout the novel, has just come home, but this homecoming to his parents’ house is harshly described as “a torture”. And in the novel that follows, there is little fun to be had for the narrator who wrestles his own demons and his family’s secretive history in order to regain a sense of self. The reader, however, is well served by James Welch’s immense literary talent. James Welch was a poet and novelist who, upon dying in 2003 at 63, had only published five novels and three collections of poetry. This appears to be a meager output considering the fact that most of the novels, just like Winter in the Blood, are short books. Since I tend to prefer longer books, it took me awhile to get around to reading anything by Welch. This was the first book of his I tried, and I highly recommend you do the same.

Winter in the Blood is an absolutely stunning piece of fiction, a dense work of art, crawling with an awareness both of western and Native fictional traditions, of political and economic necessities and it’s written by a master of prose. Welch has managed to write a book about a Native experience without ever becoming maudlin or sentimental. His book is hard as rock, yet it’s welcoming to readers. The softness of myth, of oral history, of Native tragedies informs every page of the book, even as we follow a narrative that seems fractured, harsh, bleak, even. People hit each other, contemplate murder or deceit, they distrust one another almost constantly, and this is just those who are welcome there, who see one another on a daily basis. Welch’s narrator is a visitor, and, broadly speaking, a loser, who can command neither love, nor respect or fear. He’s just there, fending for himself. Yet at the same time, any accusation of bleakness must fall short since Welch’s book describes a hopeful trek towards, not away from a firm sense of identity. As you see, even a rough description of the book is complicated and apparently contradictory, yet one of Welch’s many achievements in the novel is its utter unity, its strong, coherent voice.

Originally published in 1974, a reader of the Winter in the Blood today, especially one who is not a Native, is probably far removed from its immediate cultural and geographical contexts. While I can read and appreciate its literary and cultural contexts for what they are, readers like me have to believe critics who assure him that the geography of the book is absolutely accurate, that bars and houses and farms like that really exist in real life Montana just like they do in the book. It seems that the author took great pains to be fair and clear in how he treats the landscape that he abandons his narrator in. We never learn much about the narrator’s life outside of his homeland, the city he lived in, the people he met daily and the pressures and contexts that shaped his life outside. Instead, Welch drops his narrator into a landscape that is rife with historical and cultural contexts, a landscape that tells its inhabitants about the tragedy of its tribes, and the foul events that led them to their present state. As many Native critics, discussing this book, have pointed out, all or most tribes have a story of hardship, a special event in their more recent history where the tribe’s survival was threatened and the members of the tribe had underwent trials and tribulations to make it through the wayward historical storm.

Native sob-stories often use that tragedy to underscore the present tribe’s troubling situation, and there are undoubtedly millions of troubling situations to be handled as stories, but Welch deviates from this pattern. His narrator’s troubles are not primarily due to his tribe’s tribulations, they are, first and foremost, personal issues. It is his connection to his tribe that ultimately helps him resolve a psychological imbalance, without any of his real world problems being resolved by it. His tribe’s story of hardship is the mythical story at the heart of the remnants of his family, his connection to his family history, and like in a detective novel, or a Rashomon-like story, he uses the malleable, viscous quality of the storytelling to find out a hidden family secret. This uncovering is not, however, something that we are expecting or thinking about, it’s a sudden, almost epiphanic revelation that has as much to do with the nature of traditional Native storytelling as with any careful thinking about the story itself. Winter in the Blood is four things at once. It tells the story of his tribe’s past in three different ways, it tells the story about the narrator’s present and the awakening of his identity, it tells us about a formative experience in his youth (a personal story of hardship) and it tells us stories about telling stories.

It would be easy, as I initially did, to foreground the book’s use of traditional Native narrative techniques and patterns, and its narrative reflection of those same techniques. In fact, although Native storytelling does turn up at a crucial point of the book and although it does indeed contribute to a central revelation, it is not the most important or even the most central literary touchstone of James Welch’s magnificent little book. One of Winter in the Blood‘s most important forebears is arguably Ernest Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River”, the final story of Hemingway’s collection of stories In Our Time. “Big Two-Hearted River” is one of Hemingway’s numerous Nick Adams stories, this one focusing specifically on Nick Adams’ return from war and a fishing trip he undertakes. In Hemingway’s typical style, Adams’ only partially successful attempt at fishing and his accompanying ruminations on how and where to fish take the place of sentimental complaints about Adams’ harrowing experiences on the battlefield. Fishing, for Welch’s book, plays an almost identical role. Absurdly funny discussions about fishing take the place of meaningful human interactions and the success of fishing, and knowledge thereof is used as a social and economic signifier.

Given that the topics of the book include life, death and procreation, it’s hard not to also see in Welch’s narrator a hapless variation on Eliot’s Fisher King. In fact, such is the structure of Welch’s places and images, that it’s both a Hemingwayesque realism, plumbing the abyss between the unsaid and the undone, and a symbolist landscape to do Eliot proud. In these qualities, Winter in the Blood reflects the fact that the land where the narrator and his tribe live is both a place where rituals could take place or have taken place (some of the narrator’s actions almost have a ritual bent), and a real place to live in, a place with problems and history. This creates a kind of tension, a tension that has the book’s readers constantly on their toes, both trying to parse a vibrant web of human relationships and a confluence of literary and cultural signifiers. The tantalizing thing here is that both Eliot and Hemingway write densely, elliptic, allusive literature, and drawing on both of these traditions only heightens the density of Welch’s own novel, which is at no point inferior to its predecessors, and handles both kinds of literary speeds with admirable ease. It is quite humbling to read a book that is so in control of its material yet isn’t difficult reading. Granted, one should keep one’s eyes on the page, but the book is actually a good read, a funny one, too.

In fact, at times, the novel attains a comedic level of absurdity that will have many of its readers laughing out loud, with odd images and zany dialogue that seems to come straight from a Marx Brothers movie. One set piece in particular has this effect. Welch uses the fictional convention of the mystery man from elsewhere, rich and inscrutable, who visits a village or town with some secret motive or errand or mission, and turns it inside out. His mystery man, though clearly and efficiently set up to resemble his conventional counterpart, has no such thing and seems, in fact, somewhat confused and bewildered by the town he ends up in. He intends to go fishing, and all kinds of patrons in the bars he visits give him advice on when and where to fish, including the narrator, but he never seems to be motivated to go fishing. Indeed, the more often he crosses Winter in the Blood‘s narrator’s paths, the more we start seeing his function as being primarily that, someone to cross the narrator’s path. This is part of the tension I mentioned earlier. On the one hand, everything appears to be described in a very realistic manner, on the other hand, all devices and descriptions seem to be geared towards the narrator, rising up wherever he walks, and disappearing whenever he leaves.

The protagonist himself seems oddly unreal. On the one hand, he is highly believable, a character crafted with sublime skill. On the other hand, he seems to be more than that. He is, we are led to believe, of mixed blood, and personally, I chalked up his slightly unreal quality to the figure of the ‘mixedblood’ as Gerald Vizenor describes him, a trickster figure that Vizenor calls “mixedblood” or “crossblood”. Without wanting to imply an influence either way, I think James Welch operates, in a way, with similar ideas. It’s the trickster’s influence that warps the mystery man’s motivation, and it’s the trickster’s influence that shapes the two tragic events involving cows that met with an accident. Winter in the Blood‘s narrator is hard up or else he would not have returned to his home, and however cataclysmic the novel’s events will eventually prove to be for him, they do not change anything as far as his financial circumstances or personal relationships are concerned. What he does, is, and I’d argue it’s the trickster’s spirit that partly imbues the narrator, to re-arrange the family myths, to re-shuffle his childhood trauma and to re-align himself with a certain tribal history. To do that, the narrator dons the cloak of literary tradition but keeps changing and inverting it. The bits I mentioned are but a few of the many traditions he uses. There are also traces, for example, of the noir, among other things.

Most important, however, is the way that the narrator fuses the serious and humorous elements. The trickster’s hand becomes visible in a kind of mock-up of creation stories near the end, and, more strikingly, in a queer kind of epiphany that starts with the sentence “Bird farted”. Bird is the narrator’s horse and its fart appears to make the narrator realize some hidden family truth.

Bird farted. And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one instant of corruption.

This is unabashedly comic, yet the revelation, the new knowledge that comes to him in that very moment, is momentous, and life-changing. Winter in the Blood is full of these moment, yet this specific moment is special. It exemplifies the author’s mastery of both the tragic and the comic, and shows, like the rest of the book, why contemporary novelists like Paul Harding (see my review of Tinkers here) fall so short of the mark. James Welch is both a committed writer and reader, one who takes his readers seriously, his own life history, and the literary tradition he makes use of. In many ways, he’s as much of a regional writer as his teacher, the master poet Richard Hugo, and this is not derogatory. Winter in the Blood is filled with a thorough understanding of a landscape and the economic ties that hold it together. It is not, like Harding’s novel, set in some fantasy version of reality. At the same time, his command of the spiritual, the mystical, the prayerful moments is also superior to a kitsch artiste like Harding, because he grounds its needs and necessities in the real world. The result of all this is that Winter in the Blood is a great novel, and James Welch is a great, great writer.


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