House Made of Dawn

by N. Scott Momaday
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

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.

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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 on the power of the word and how modern people have diluted that power, but midstream he begins to interject his own dilutions in the form of colloquialisms, irony, and blatant humor.

Readers receive their first indication of Abel’s critical physical condition as he lies near the water. He flashes back to his childhood healing by Josie, a medicine woman, and to his trial for the albino’s murder. Still, Abel has no words. Instead, he coughs blood, as an owl, the sharp-sighted night bird, watches.

Remembrance of the dawn runners against evil and death unblocks Abel’s awareness. He recognizes his isolation from self and from creation and, now open for healing, returns to the water. The peyote episode is also curative, as Ben Benally is revealed as healer through his vision of the horses and the “house made of dawn.”

Abel remembers Josie’s nurturance after his mother had died. He realizes that his generalized chronic fear is paralyzing his potential for integration. Flashing back to a time when he had wanted to share the extraordinary sight of twenty-four geese rising in formation from the river, Abel relives Millie’s story of abandonment, isolation, and grief. Then he rises to journey home. As Abel travels, Tosamah reveals the story of the Kiowa migration and the steps that led to their demise. Part 2 concludes with Tosamah’s tale of the sojourn to Rainy Mountain.

Ben Benally narrates part 3, in Los Angeles, after he has given Abel his own coat for Abel’s train ride home. The night before, Ben had created a future in words for the two men so similar in background that they could be brothers. He had privately sung the healing “House Made of Dawn” chant. Considering Abel’s history in Los Angeles, Ben concludes that Abel did not fit. He interacted little with others and appeared withdrawn, lost. After his failed drunken attack on Tosamah, during which the other poker players laughed, Abel had isolated himself totally.

The tension of the foregoing scenes is alleviated by the comic story of the venerable Indian who fell into the river. Moreover, this story bridges to the “Turquoise Woman’s Son” song, a chant to restore wholeness to the incomplete, the means by which Abel prepares for change. Angela’s brief street appearance introduces her to Ben, who will call her while Abel is recovering in the hospital. The symbolism of Abel’s reappearance after three days lends credibility to the theory that he is progressing toward wholeness. Similarly, Angela’s tale of the bear and the maiden represents her healing connection to the Earth Mother.

Part 4, “The Dawn Runner,” in Walatowa (which means Village of the Bear), opens as Abel returns to his dying grandfather. After spending two days in a drunken stupor, Abel acknowledges the chronic state of his own illness. Even though he wants to speak to his grandfather, once again he has no words. Francisco, however, does. Transmission of his own honorable experiences on the bear hunt empowers Abel.

After his grandfather dies, Abel prepares him for burial and notifies Father Olquin. Although the priest has almost deluded himself into believing that he has successfully adapted to the Indian culture surrounding him, his protestations of understanding ring false. In fact, Father Olquin’s capacity for self-deception has increased. Preparing for his own dawn run to wholeness, Abel rubs his upper body with ashes. Then, as dawn strikes the horizon, he runs beyond his own pain, beyond evil, beyond death. By repeating the words of Ben’s healing song, Abel indicates his acceptance of integration with nature.

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