The first few times I listened to this book, I found it extremely problematic. My first thoughts were, "What is the difference between pretentious and affected?" and "Oh, my god, this seems like such a steaming pile of pretendian, pan-Indian dreck!"
Unable to resolve this, I turned to my friends in the Native American literary community, in hopes of finding out whether N. Scott Momaday were a well-known Indian faker or what.
It turns out that he is regarded as a respected elder. There you go.
On the plus, side, some of the descriptions of scenery, and some of the descriptions of lovemaking, I found to be well done. There was, however, an inordinate amount of "wheeling" both by eagles and by horseriders (as I recall). However, much of the book seemed to take the form of a first person narrative by a confessions of a part-time Indian character who was narrating the events around the life and struggles of whom I gathered to be the main character, Abel, whom I gathered to be the main character mainly from the author's opening remarks. Indeed, there was much that only seemed to be contained in the author's remarks and which I would've otherwise had trouble seeing--more on that later. This narrative I found to be lazy and kind of patronizing, but also fairly readable. More on that, later.
My audiobook opened with opening remarks read by the author. Yikes!
Remarks like "we lived in a camp within a camp" sent up red flags for me in terms of the reek of pretendianism and shortfall of lived experience as a basis for the book. He talked about freeing up his class schedule so he could write until noon. And he got up and spent two hours every morning going to a local (expensive?) hotel to read the New York Times and breakfasting on crisp bacon. Why? First, about the least Native thing to do when writing such a book--bacon? And crisp? And then he went to write for a few hours. Big deal. He did National Novel Writing Month while wasting the first couple of hours.
He talked about how his main character represented the men who went to the war (World War II, it seems?) and came back with this thing called PTSD and developed this thing called alcoholism. He spoke about it from an outsider's perspective, and that was how it came through in the book.
My mother gave me a love of language. And then, and maybe this is the fault of my audiobook reader, he mixes up words like "cavalry" and "calvary" and this is not caught by editors. Sad! Especially since he vaguely skirted things like Catholicism and the decimation of the Natives by the US Army (the cavalry) this seems a massive oversight, a lack of distinction.
However, I had from my own limited personal knowledge that Momaday's description of the mythical creation of Devil's Tower was not only wrong, in the Lakota myth the seven sisters were lifted into the sky to become the Pleiades, or the Little Dipper, not the Big Dipper. Obviously this is a pan-Indian reference, as my sources confirmed, i.e., it has nothing to do with the southwestern Native groups, but with others hundreds if not thousands of miles away, and having totally different cultures and mythologies. This made me wonder how many more spurious references the author used which I was unable to discern, and if there were a lot of other cases of pandering to white audiences by invoking familiar iconography (contact memes).
One thing I did know something about, and this might be another example of the author trying to snow his readers with sham demonstrations of authority derived from lived experience and so forth was the mistakes in the Spanish quotes in the book. Generally not great, but one thing that struck me in particular, and to quote Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction, i.e., "you can't blow this shit off" (since some may be tempted to do so) the errors of gender agreement, in the Spanish. My audio reader either did a mediocre job of pronouncing many Spanish words in a way that made me suspect that the words were misspelled (the word for "grandmother" being one example), or they actually were misspelled (and I could get into the nitty-gritty of this). Anyway, imagine reading an English text where the articles, the "the" and "a" and "an" were used improperly and mixed indiscriminately, and you can get an idea of how I felt reading this book.
One big problem I had with the book is that it seemed to be a seething pile of the cultural reference equivalent of name-dropping and noodle stories. High on the list is the title itself: House Made of Dawn. In the author's introduction he describes this reference as "deeply spirtual" (to some people which is not clearly identified, which again raises the stink of panindianism or just "makin' shit up") but does not explain or elaborate on its meeting. Imagine a story central to a given family, along the lines of "a dog collar made of a shoulder strap handbag of the time we went to Wal*Mart but mom had brought the wrong coupon." As a reader, I would feel insulted and patronized by such a reference, if it went unelaborated, and indeed I am in this case. I don't like to be force-fed from a grab bag of "spiritual" references and expected to swallow it all and feel somehow "awed" by it.
One irritation, and I'm trying to make a rather subtle point here, was the repeated insistence of the author on "long lists" (for lack of a better term) of things like sacred items. I don't want to be too pedantic about the satisfaction of short, preferably three-item lists, such as "mom and apple pie" or Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," and so forth. It's Monty Pythonesque, like
Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms - Oh damn!
Anyway, there was constant mention of pollen and corn and beans and peppers and so on, and the Peyote scene was similar. Which ingredients are important and why? Which are more important than others. I've had a certain taste of this, for example a Japanese person explaining the Tea Ceremony, or a Jewish friend explaining the details of the Seder, and I didn't feel insulted. Why do you turn the tea bowl after you place it in front of the person you are serving? Why do you put a cloth over the challah? You just do. It is out of respect for your guest...or something. The challah would feel bad...or something. At least give a reason! To make it clear that it's important.
I wondered whether the albino man, who seemed to come from nowhere, represented the White Man who was oppressing his main character, but this was not developed, I felt. Same with what I gathered was the main character's grandfather. He died, and the priest "I understand" shouting, I found all to get unsatisfying, disconnected. As was the narrator, talking about how "we got drunk" and "it would be the last time" (perhaps a Beatles' song told a capella and "in the good way") also seemed disconnected. And why was the narrator, who know about "the relocation people" (another noodle story) not similarly unlucky, dispossessed, suffering from some form of PTSD and alcoholism. It detracted from the idea that the whole community was suffering, and made it just about the one person. There were also a couple of women, like the woman who lost her daughter, who seemed to just wander in and out of the story. It seemed like there were a lot of characters and connections which were tossed out and not developed or connected to the whole.
Momaday mentioned PTSD and alcoholism in the author's remarks, but I didn't feel he did a very good job of developing how these affected the Native community he was supposedly writing about. The narrator repeated post nauseam noodle-story-ridden phrases like "we got good and drunk" and "we would get drunk, and it would be the last time" (why the last? when was the first?). The ostensible main character gets depressed and doesn't come to work, the reasons for this are always unsatisfying, he gets drunk and beaten almost to death, but as the narrator says "but he was unlucky" (an existential comment as opposed to something developed by experience either directly or indirectly through the narrative) and it all shows that the author has no knowledge of PTSD or alcoholism, or perhaps a plethora of other things. His version of PTSD triggered seems tantamount to a "loss for words" or such, and the hopeless downward spiral of alcoholism, the Jeckel and Hyde nature of it, the most interesting aspects of all of these conditions, seem to elude the author and leave the narrative flat and the reader disappointed.
Every time I listened to the book, I had the impression that it was trying to tell some kind of asynchronous story, because it seemed to jump around, but it really didn't. There were a number of disconnected myths, flashbacks (whose it was often unclear), and so forth. The reader was expected to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of integrating them into the story. The priest is focused on, but does he have an affair with the St-John white woman? He is the one who testifies for Abel in the murder of the albino guy, and then he's called upon to bury the grandfather, but it's not even clear that he's the same person, and his relationship with Abel (or whomever) is not developed or connected. I felt like there was some kind of pretentious, affected attempt to add mystery or the air of sophistication, but without actually doing the work.
My respect for the Pulitzer Prize went into the toilet with this book.