Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
House Made of Dawn, Momaday’s first novel, is divided into four major sections with dated chapter subheadings. In keeping with the Native American sense of history, the narrative is episodic rather than chronological. Thus, Momaday evokes both a sense of timelessness and a concentration on the essence of each experiential piece, gradually forming a healing pattern for Abel, the protagonist, as he moves toward an internal congruence with the earth.
Part 1, “The Longhair,” opens and closes with Francisco, Abel’s grandfather. A drunken Abel arrives by bus and is taken home. The ensuing flashbacks from Abel’s childhood are both pleasant and fearful. His lack of attunement with nature is evidenced when, as a young child, he refuses to accept the moaning of the wind and responds instead with fear. The death of his brother Vidal is juxtaposed with Abel’s coming-of-age rites.
Memories of the Eagle Watchers Society, survivors whom disaster had molded into medicine men, are next to surface. Abel catches a great eagle during the hunt but cries when he thinks of the implications of its captivity. Recognizing that the bird is no longer able to retain its natural state of grace, he strangles it. Once again, death is paralleled to life.
As the novel continues, Father Olquin, a priest fascinated by the perverted journal of Fray Nicholas, whom he sees as a saint, and Mrs. Martin St. John are introduced. Despite her pregnancy, Angela St. John plots to seduce Abel. Neither of these antagonists has made appropriate life accommodations for his or her role. Abel himself is too spiritually fragmented to meld with the rhythms of his horse in the annual rooster-snatching contest. The evil albino, however, retrieves the rooster and beats Abel with it. Thus, Abel is directly confronted with his alienation from himself and others.
Following a description of the unique gifts of animals to the land, Abel begins to reexperience nature’s rhythms but discovers that he is not yet healed enough to have words for a creation song. Nevertheless, he does have the power to bed Angela, who sees in him the bear, thereby starting down her own path of healing, which is reinforced by her craving for the cleansing rain. Abel kills the albino, then kneels beside him to honor the dying process and to soak in the purifying rain.
Part 2, “The Priest of the Sun,” is set in Los Angeles. The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah opens a serious sermon...
(The entire section is 1015 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday’s first novel, is the story of an outcast who learns that his being is bound up in his culture. The novel, which relates the experiences of a mixed-race World War II veteran, was a signal achievement, winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Momaday in 1969 and paving a way for other Native American novelists.
It begins with Abel’s return to his ancestral village. Although he is so drunk that he does not recognize his grandfather, Abel’s troubles run much deeper. He feels cut off from the Tanoan tribe yet unwilling to live in white America. Even more disturbing to Abel is his inability to “say the things he wanted” to anyone. His inability to express himself hampers his achieving a true identity. Wrapped up in his own problems, Abel is jealous and violent toward those who do participate in Tanoan culture. While at Walatowa, Abel loses a competition to an albino Indian and murders him.
After his release from prison, Abel tries to build a new life in California, where he comes in contact with a small community of Indians, who are also alienated from their cultures. The leader of this exile community is John Tosamah, a self-proclaimed priest of the sun, who sermonizes on the failure of white society to recognize the sacredness of the American landscape and of language. Tosamah victimizes Abel, however. Eventually, Abel is cast out of this group and is savagely beaten by a sadistic police...
(The entire section is 405 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Abel, a young Jemez Pueblo Indian, returns to his New Mexico village in 1945 after fighting in the Pacific theater during World War II. The war leaves him emotionally devastated and unable to participate in the world he left behind, the world of his grandfather, Francisco. Now an old man with a lame leg, Francisco in his youth was a respected hunter and participant in the village’s religious ceremonies. He raised Abel from a young age, after the death of Abel’s mother and older brother, Vidal (Abel does not know who his father is). Francisco instilled in Abel a sense of native traditions and values, but the war and other events severed Abel’s connections to that world of spiritual and physical wholeness and to the land and its people, a world known as a “house made of dawn.”
At about the same time Abel returns to his village, Angela St. John, a rich, unhappy white woman, arrives to indulge in the area’s mineral baths. Through Father Olguin, the village’s well-meaning but isolated and ineffective Catholic priest, she hires Abel to chop the wood at the house she rents. Disenchanted with her own life and ambivalent about her new pregnancy, she is instantly attracted to Abel and soon seduces him. Angela senses an animal-like quality in Abel that she hopes will revive her flagging emotional health. She also senses Abel’s sadness and promises to help Abel find a good job and get off the New Mexico reservation.
One rainy night, Abel has a fight with a sinister and mysterious albino man, Juan Reyes, described almost exclusively as “the white man.” Abel surmises that Juan is a witch; outside a bar, in the rain, he stabs Juan to death. At his trial, Abel...
(The entire section is 689 words.)