N. Scott Momaday, who was born in 1934 in Oklahoma of Kiowa, Cherokee, and white heritage, grew up in New Mexico, where his father was a school principal. There, Momaday had intimate contact with Navajo and Jemez Pueblo peoples and cultures. His familiarity with those two worlds, along with his formal training in creative writing at Stanford University, shaped the writing of his first novel, House Made of Dawn, which was published in 1968 and won the Pulitzer Prize the next year. Momaday’s novel is credited with beginning a period of renewed interest in and activity by American Indian writers. After its publication, a rich stream of fiction and poetry began issuing from a varied field of American Indian tribes and experiences.
House Made of Dawn is written in a style that frequently echoes the language of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. In the story’s narrative structure, the plot is revealed out of chronological order and from multiple points of view. Several elements of the story remain unnarrated, leaving occurrences and motivations open for the reader’s speculation.
Although the style of House Made of Dawn reflects twentieth century practices, the novel adheres to the symbolic universes of the Jemez Pueblo and Navajo Indians. Abel is, for example, frequently associated with bears, which hold great healing powers and are to be both respected and feared. Elements of the Nightway, a lengthy Navajo healing ceremony, also are important to the novel. In that ceremony, which lasts for seven days and ends at dawn (the time when the novel begins and ends), a person sings over another who seeks healing. Ben Benally does exactly this for his good friend Abel in the third section of the novel, which is entitled “The Night Chanter.” Part of the Nightway appears in this section as Ben sings it, and the novel takes its title from a line in the ceremony. Jemez Pueblo and Navajo traditions also have stories about heroic twins who are dependent upon each other to accomplish their tasks: the Stricken Twins, and Monster-Slayer and Born-of-Water. Some critics see Ben and Abel as representations of those twins.
The novel’s dependence on symbolic traditions outside...
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