James Welch Welch, James (Vol. 6) - Essay

Welch, James (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Welch, James 1940–

Welch is an American Indian poet and novelist.

Welch says [of "Winter in the Blood"], "I have seen works written about Indians by whites … but only an Indian knows who he is." And three of the six jacket-encomiasts insist upon the book's special value as inside news of Indian life. A small part of its value may well be that, but to stress the Indianness of Welch or his novel is to indulge in the same obfuscatory inverse snobbery with which some black writers and journalists have recently burdened their work. (The oppressed can hardly be blamed for reluctance to admit that their oppressors have indeed understood them—and continued to oppress.)

"Winter in the Blood" is by no means an "Indian novel." There is nothing in it—character, incident, language or emotion—which will not be familiar or quickly comprehensible to any middle- or working-class white or black Southerner, Jew, Spanish-speaking American, homosexual, or other minority member, literate country-club social chairmen included. What it is is a nearly flawless novel about human life. To say less is to patronize its complex knowledge, the amplitude of its means, and its clear lean voice.

Not that Welch doesn't draw a substantial part of his emotional power and the echoes of his story from an intensely observed past, from a meticulous particularity of human and geographic reference—reservation Montana. His book is nothing if not firmly local, rural (implicitly anti-urban), in the main tradition of the European and American novel. Its locus and cast are in fact tightly constricted—an aging young man, his mother, stepfather, his dying grandmother, an important blind neighbor; the family ranch; nearby towns with bars and lonely women. But the story it tells, the knowledge it contains, has as much to say of the bone-deep disaffection and bafflement, the famous and apparently incurable psychic paralysis of several million Americans of varied origins now in their twenties, early thirties, as of any smaller group. Permafrost in the blood and mind—why and how and what to do?…

[The Indian narrator's life is like] a black sack tied firmly shut. But no more firmly tied than most human sacks—as Welch and his narrator both see calmly (and detail in richly humorous low-life encounters with mysteriously luckless whites)—and tied shut partly by the man's past refusal to do more than double his own binding knots. Not much of a story if it ended there, surely not a fresh one.

But just as it threatens to die in its crowded sack, it opens onto light—and through natural, carefully prepared, but beautifully surprising narrative means: a recovery of the past; a venerable, maybe lovable, maybe usable past. To describe that opening here would deprive readers of the pleasure of its sudden radiance within the whole book. Enough to say that it involves the narrator's late discovery of long-suppressed facts about his own heritage—the names and history of his grandparents—and that Welch's new version of the central scene in all narrative literature (the finding of lost kin) can stand proudly with its most moving predecessors in epic, drama and fiction….

[What] Welch has shown, not only for his lonely Blackfeet hero but for armies of the rapidly aging young, is a truth engraved in iron—a society which has taken no care that its children love their past (and a past which has taken no care to be lovable or venerable—a ground at least) will reap generations of frozen children, hateful and hated. Black, white, brown, yellow, red.

Few books in any year speak so unanswerably, make their own local terms so thoroughly ours. "Winter in the Blood"—in its young crusty dignity, its grand bare lines, its comedy and mystery, its clean pathfinding to the center of hearts—deserves more notice than good novels get. Mere true stories. (p. 1)

Reynolds Price, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1974.

The narrator of this small first novel [Winter in the Blood] is a nameless American Indian, 32 years old, "servant," as he describes himself, "to a memory of death."… [After his brother and father die, he] thinks that something has died in him as well; he feels "no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years." (p. 104)

Then another death ensues, that of his ancient grandmother. She had once been the third wife of a revered—and defeated—Blackfoot chief. Watching her die, the grandson learns something of her heroism and finds another survivor, his own grandfather, to link him to the tragic past of his people.

The vision is brief, its echo swallowed by Montana's vast emptiness. But it reveals that the hero's feigned indifference to life is a sham. He inwardly craves all the things to which he has tried to close his heart: love and loyalty, and a purpose that will root him to the land his forebears lost. Near the book's end, he tries to rescue a cow that is in danger of drowning in mud. The task is mock-heroic, emblematic of the best he can expect from existence. But he struggles furiously, engaged in the grubbiness of life through an inertia of commitment that is stronger than protective cynicism.

Novelist James Welch … neatly juggles despair and hope; the book's surfaces convey both a sad seediness and a tumbledown vitality…. With remarkable force, Winter in the Blood brings its experiences home to others. Its prose is as dry and tough as pemmican. It turns a long historic outrage into a short, relentlessly unsentimental elegy. (p. E3)

Paul Gray, "Indian Maze," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 9, 1974, pp. 104, E3.

Winter in the Blood … [asserts] the exceptionally high quality of fiction by Native Americans….

Welch's novel is dissimilar to … earlier novels [Hyemeyohsts Storm's Seven Arrows and N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn] because the element of protest common to [these two Indian novelists] is missing….

Like the unnamed narrator of his novel with whom he shares a number of characteristics, [Welch] is part Blackfeet and part Gros Ventre, though one cannot assume that his novel is autobiographical. Much of the power of Winter in the Blood is the result of its deceptively simple story—on the surface a low-keyed account of life on and off the reservation, covering a week or 10 days in the life of the narrator, a young man in his 30s. Welch creates a hypnotic mood that slowly builds from seemingly unimportant events….

These incidents are mixed in with scenes of Indian life that have rarely been recorded in the literature about Native Americans or in the movies and TV shows that have systematically ignored the authenticity of Indian family life. Particularly impressive is Welch's use of humor. For the most part, the Indians in his story are happy—enjoying life, having fun together. (p. 26)

The people here are mostly successful—even prosperous. Teresa, the narrator's mother, is a property owner and respected member of the community. Life on the reservation has never been easy, but it has its moments of beauty and peacefulness. That is the real surprise of Welch's story; life is not so different here from what we have found in earlier novels about growing up on the land: Hamlin Garland's A Son of the Middle Border or O. E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth.

It is the tone, however, that is so important in this novel. Welch's control may remind one of the early works of John Steinbeck, such as The Red Pony, and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. An elegiac quietness bridges the scenes between the present and the past, juxtaposing the events in the narrator's present life with those of his youth…. These scenes recapturing the past are beautifully controlled by the skillful use of nuance, by balancing flashbacks against the events in the present….

Winter in the Blood is a beautiful book, put together with loving care, an unforgettable story of life on the reservation, close to the land. From common events and situations Welch has chiseled a work of perfect unity and finish. For some readers this will be the most significant piece of Indian writing they have yet encountered; for others, it will be simply a brilliant novel—independent of any racial context. (p. 27)

Charles R. Larson, "Native American Writing," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 14, 1974, pp. 26-8.

["Winter in the Blood" is an] interesting, if seriously flawed, first novel…. Although the "Indianness" of the book is felt more in terms of mood than in specific details, Mr. Welch manages to convey that it is a part of almost every emotion that the [narrator] feels and of every move he makes. The man is unhappy at home, unhappy with his Cree girl friend, and a brief venture into the outside world has not encouraged him to try to join it. Gradually, one comes to feel that all the shoddy bars the man frequents, all the parched prairies and seedy streets he wanders through, and a good part of his loneliness are related, in a hundred subtle and not so subtle ways, to his being racially dispossessed and cut off from the American mainstream. Unfortunately, however, there is too much that is simply callow and unappealing about the character, and though the author's observations about nature are almost always satisfying, his portraits of the other characters are frustrating. The reader longs to know more about the man's (beautifully sketched) silent, aged grandmother, and his scruffy girl friend, and his clownish stepfather, and his handsome, bitter mother—but in vain. (p. 84)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 23, 1974.