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Welch, James 1940–

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Welch is an American Indian poet and novelist. He draws most of the material for his fiction from the experiences of his youth on an Indian reservation in Montana. The emotional power of Welch's writing is partly a result of his dual abilities to address the topical problems of Indians in contemporary America and to explore the universal complexities of the human condition. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Roger Sale

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The writing [in Winter in the Blood] is constantly fending off easy attitudes and conclusions with a flat, brooding precision. The reader keeps wanting to be able to make something of it all, to be clear how these people are Indians, how being an Indian makes a difference. Welch himself is a Montanan, Blackfoot and Gros Ventre, and in Winter in the Blood one may find out what it is like to be an Indian, this Indian, but just what that means is never once offered us for summary or conclusion. It is an unnervingly beautiful book. (p. 20)

As one might imagine, there are fine conversations in bars, and they have just the right quality of aimlessness and direction of life being lived and not lived. (p. 21)

Writing as flat and quiet as this, in a novel that is mostly dialogue, tempts one to think of Hemingway, to praise its tact and understatement. But Winter in the Blood has no such Hemingway sense of style or life; it states everything fully, seeks no sense that these people are responding "gracefully under pressure," because there is no pressure. But that does not lead Welch either to absurdist acceptance or to despair, but to a careful page-by-page measurement of the precise value of however little there is to these lives. Of course in a book like this there is bound to be a problem with plot, because one is inevitably attitudinizing if one uses a plot to give the lives shape or if one refuses to use plot to refuse to give them shape. Here too Welch's instinct seems to me just right. Beyond the first excitement of finding a book so carefully done, one can begin to get twitchy and ask where it is all going, restless with the possibility that Welch will try to get away with saying it is going nowhere. (pp. 21-2)

James Welch in this first novel is only a truth-teller, and Winter in the Blood may be the only one he can write because writers this sternly devoted to telling the truth often don't have many more than one or two tales to tell. We must hope not. Winter in the Blood is short, done almost before one feels well begun with it, but I felt very much in its presence long after I had finished. (p. 22)

Roger Sale, "Winter's Tales," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXI, No. 20, December 12, 1974, pp. 18-22.∗

John R. Milton

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[James Welch] is the best American Indian poet in terms of techniques, production, attitudes, and what must be called competence. One argument advanced against this opinion is that his forms and style are not peculiarly Indian, that he writes good poetry but not Indian poetry. It is true that Welch's poems are not syntactically complicated by his oral language traditions; they are at least partially indicative of his college training. Yet, what is characteristic of Indian poetry is not primarily a left-over dependence on nonwritten native language patterns…. More importantly, the Indian writer has a close personal relationship with the earth and its creatures…. He writes in quite simple rhythms, as though they are dictated by the rhythms of the natural world. And his imagery is often oriental … in its complex simplicity. Finally, of course, it is the poet's experiences as an Indian which determine the subject matter of the poems.

Welch, like many Indian poets, has said that he wants to be known as a poet, not as an Indian poet. That is both right and understandable. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that many of his poems deal with reservation life in Montana, with inferior economic conditions, and with protests against the Washington bureaus responsible for Indian welfare, in addition to the more personal matters of family, tradition, and religion. Some of Welch's poems are sharply satiric; others are softly suggestive, as in this line from "Snow Country Weavers":

                        say in my mind
               I saw your spiders weaving
                  threads
               to bandage up the day
                                     (p. 83)

John R. Milton, "New American Indian Writers," in The Contemporary Literary Scene 1973, edited by Frank N. Magill (copyright © 1974 by Frank N. Magill), Salem Press, Inc., 1974, pp. 82-6.∗

Blanche H. Gelfant

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James Welch's fine novel, Winter in the Blood, the story of a 32-year-old Indian on a Montana reservation, depends upon understatement, requires it, would be impossible to tell without its restraint. For the story of Indian dispossession is stark and terrible, and, unlike science fiction, true…. The story implicates victor and vanquished in a shared guilt, the white man for having aggressed, the red man for having succumbed. Whatever the reasons or the excuses, the consequences remain inexcusable. The consequences are here in the book, in the narrator's bruised body and defeated spirit, and in the writer's grace. James Welch is not his protagonist, and that must remain a sole and important consolation. The novel begins with an image of dilapidation, the Earthboy place in shambles…. We are accustomed to speak of alienation as the pervasive theme of twentieth-century American fiction, but the alienation of the middle-class white man seems a whining, self-pitying pose beside the experience of the American Indian, separated as he is from his land, his traditions, his people, his customs, his past; separated from himself. All of the narrator's memories are of loss…. The narrator does nothing but wander through bars and unfamiliar bedrooms, drunk, beaten, dazed, pursuing a girl, or the dream of a girl, who holds the only promise of something better, "the promise of warm things."… His hope, not only for salvation but for life itself, lies in the possibility of awakened desire. Wanting nothing, caring for no one, feeling only loss, he will die—broken, tamed, and trapped…. Welch's narrator anaesthetizes himself in order to endure the pain of his total dispossession; but apathy, like winter in the blood, is not transcendence, but death…. Winter in the Blood is quiet, straightforward, and unflinching, a simple and striking story about death—the death of a people, a tradition, a land, a river, a promise. We must read it to our despair. (pp. 311-12)

Blanche H. Gelfant, "Fiction Chronicle: 'Winter in the Blood'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1975, pp. 311-12.

Syed Amanuddin

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Nature and Native American poetry are not merely related by alliteration; they also have a spiritual bond which is a result of hundreds of years of contact and togetherness. Social protest, subjective explorations of existence and other themes are present in Native American poetry as in other American minority poetry. But the affinity between nature and the Native Americans is natural and spiritual and is conspicuously absent in contemporary poetry by other ethnic groups…. The strange cosmic perspective that haunts the Indian mind does not lose itself in its pursuit of the transitory and the superficial, although it does not totally ignore current social realities.

James Welch's poetry has all these characteristics…. (p. 142)

Welch is not always serious. The old man in "Grandma's Man" paints the cry of a goose so long that it floats off the canvas into thin air. Similar humor is seen in "Never Give A Bum An Even Break." But his best poems are serious and philosophical, and nature dominates much of his poetry. (p. 143)

Syed Amanuddin, "World Literature in Review: 'Riding the Earthboy 40'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 142-43.

Robert Holland

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In Riding the Earthboy 40,… [James Welch] would give us something of the material and spiritual poverty of the American Indian reservation, or rather, and more significantly, of the no-man's-land of small towns at their fringes where the two cultures meet, usually unhappily…. Welch has lived this, and knows the territory, not only the degradation of this passage, but the other side as well, the attempts to resist assimilation, preserve the native culture and resurrect its significance in the face of colonial conditions. Recent popular treatments of the situation have, inevitably, reduced it to cliché, and so one hopes, reading this book, that the poetry will come to the rescue. But Welch's language is not equal to the task. As the two cultures mingle uneasily, so two kinds of diction mix in the poems, but seldom do they produce the chemistry needed to precipitate poetry. A soft, "elemental" diction (clouds, dreams, sky, snow, bones, blood), aimed apparently at drawing on archetypal energies, produces only vagueness (as in the worst of Merwin) and is incongruous with Welch's other characteristic diction, a racy slang…. Also mixed into this unfortunate brew are a couple of staple ingredients from the contemporary poetic kitchen—a colorful but tasteless essence of synesthesia ("Shawls color the rainbow a new odor") and that indispensable monosodium glutamate of our time, inane surrealism: "Elephants are whispering in backyards." Occasionally an image will strike a spark, cutting to the heart of a dilemma ("These Indians once imitated life") or rendering a landscape ("sky so blue / the eagles spoke in foreign tongues"), but for the most part the poems are a jumble of competing tones and confused impressions.

Part of the reason, I suspect, that Welch does not sharpen his diction and clarify his tone is an underlying fear of sentimentality. He speaks in more than one poem about "sentimental crap", and given the potential bathos of his subject, his fear is understandable…. But in his attempts to evade sentimentality, Welch ends up evading feeling as well, and the real issues…. Either way, the poet, along with his persona, remains "distant / as the cloud I came in on", and Welch does little service either to poetry or to the American Indian. (pp. 287-89)

Robert Holland, "Six or Seven Fools," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXIX, No. 5, February, 1977, pp. 285-95.∗

Don Kunz

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Winter in the Blood … is a novel in which the nameless protagonist's search for an authentic and meaningful sense of being in the world is structured around various distances. Distance is articulated in essentially three forms—physical, emotional, and aesthetic. The physical (including temporal) distance at which his family and others are held partly causes their emotional remoteness from or coolness toward the protagonist, and he temporarily loses sight of who he is. His emotional distance, in turn, makes him a wanderer, leading him to establish an even greater distance from these others in an accelerating process until the principal action of homecoming is torture. For most of the novel the protagonist is variously lost in a steadily increasing distance: he is directionless, beaten, absorbed, and uncomprehending. Paradoxically, only when he flees from himself and from the ignorant grasping of others and relives his painful winter memories does he attain that positive quality inherent in distance which we call perspective and so truly finds himself, having come home. The acquisition of a knowable and valued self at the conclusion is affirmed by the act of telling his story through techniques which involve the aesthetic application of distance—actions perceived symbolically, images which gradually cluster like stars into constellations of meaning, and especially the objective correlative, which transmutes emotion into action which evokes emotion in others and so by an act of imagination diminishes the distances among us all. (pp. 98-9)

Don Kunz, "Lost in the Distance of Winter: James Welch's 'Winter in the Blood'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XX, No. 1, 1978, pp. 93-9.

Andrew Horton

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There are few laughs in Winter in the Blood … even though the narrator shares characteristics of a trickster, joker, and fool…. [The] narrator is a mediator and thus an ambiguous and equivocal character. The polar terms he attempts to mediate or reconcile are the fundamental ones of life and death, past and present, winter and summer, Indian and white cultures, the nature of men and women, sex and love, self and others. But unlike the tricksters of his Indian heritage, Welch's narrator is human and so must pay the psychological and spiritual price for existing between extremes, unreconciled to either of them…. [He] is his own man discontent with his present, haunted by his past …, and uncertain of his future. His isolation is all the more bitter as we realize how important a sense of belonging and a spirit of community were for tribal Indians. The comic spirit of traditional harmony becomes the bitter humor of separation in Welch's novel.

The humor in Winter in the Blood arises from the dialogue and from the descriptive passages, that is, both from the narrator's actions and from his thoughts. In both cases the humor is bitter because it is never distanced far enough from pain and absurdity to be truly comic…. This humor does not invite hearty laughter. We may chuckle (grandmother as murderer) or snicker (the death of the oatmeal man) but we are always aware that the narrator's humor reflects the seriousness of his condition.

The novel is filled with such ironic encounters and discoveries. Given different circumstances, much of the humor, even the black humor, would be much funnier. But in the context of Welch's book, the jokes, ironies, and absurd situations become a series of bitter happenings that enable the narrator to cushion himself from his personal difficulties, without providing him or us with the healing balm of true laughter. (pp. 132-33)

The least funny moments occur in town. As he drinks, fights, and copulates, the narrator is part of a sleezy white man's world of neon signs, cheap beer, fast women, slow country music, rundown hotels, and battered cars. The humor in these scenes is barroom humor, the kind of hard-nosed crude joking one expects to find in a 'B' detective movie of the 1940's and 50's. But even in such movies we usually laugh at tough-guy talk despite the seedy background because we recognize the lingo as the stuff of the detective genre…. [The] narrator jokes with us, himself, and others only because he means business, because he is serious about his life.

There is a progression of the bitter humor in the "town" scenes of the book toward even more absurd and thus humorless circumstances. (pp. 133-34)

Welch's ironic humor is finally used as a self-protecting mechanism. As events become more serious—beginning with the death of his grandmother—the narrator increases his use of humor….

The death of the narrator's grandmother also leads him back to Yellow Calf and a discovery of his true grandfather. He begins the encounter with a poor joke about the bottle of "Vin Rose" he has brought being a French wine made from roses. But the conversation soon leads to the moment of realization (Yellow Calf is the narrator's grandfather) and thus comic liberation as the narrator briefly breaks into open laughter: "I began to laugh, at first quietly, with neither bitterness nor humor. It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance: 'You … you're the one.' I laughed, as the secret unfolded itself. 'The only one … you, her hunter …' And the way behind my eyes broke."… (p. 136)

The pure comic nature of this epiphany is made all the more significant because it is set off by Bird's fart. The narrator had heard Yellow Calf's story and has begun to ponder its meaning. Yet only after this unexpected "comic relief" is the narrator jolted, through the crudest of all humor, into a clear insight. Furthermore, the narrator ponders that Bird's "one instant of corruption" as he terms the fart, is a metaphor for the sudden truth he has learned. The foul air of the narrator's past has finally burst out bringing relief and laughter.

In this brief moment the narrator's bitterness and ironic joking fall away as he experiences the healing power of the kind of laughter the Indian comic ceremony dramas evoked. He realizes that it is not only winter he feels in his blood (the sense of death and distance) but also his grandfather's silent laughter. And yet even this moment is directly the result of supposedly "low" comedy as Bird's humorous trumpeting closely unites Bird, the narrator, and Yellow Calf in an instant of shared communion. In one flash of recognition Welch succeeds in touching the extremes of experience and fusing them as one moment of truth through pure laughter. Without the fart the narrator's insight may have been yet another painful discovery. With Bird's unwitting help such knowledge is transformed into a sense of liberation. (pp. 136-37)

From the time they dig the grave until the time the grandmother is buried, [the narrator] also includes his final interview with Yellow Calf, the death of Bird, and his own serious thoughts about his life. Or, more correctly, the narrator has chosen to record enough farcical humor to keep himself and his narrative from being overwhelmed by his troubles even though he is unable to bring that humor to its full comic fruition because of the winter he feels in his blood. (p. 138)

During the funeral, there is a hint that the narrator may be beginning to transcend his condition. In the "Epilogue" he carefully explains what clothing everyone wore to the funeral. When he comes to his grandmother, he states: "The old lady wore a shiny orange coffin with flecks of black ingrained beneath the surface. It had been sealed up in Harlem, so we never did find out what kind of makeup job the undertaker had done on her."… Describing the old lady as "wearing" a coffin suggests she continues to exist even if she no longer lives. This is a "joke," but it is also in keeping with the Indian concept of death as a continuation of life.

If this moment is a transcendent one, it is also highly ambiguous. The narrator's comment about his grandmother wearing a shiny coffin and his final action of tossing her pouch into the open grave, suggest an affirmation of the old lady's spirit, a kind of communication: he knows how important the pouch was to her, thus she would want to have it with her. But not enough is said for us to feel easy about such transcendence. In fact, he may simply be closing off the past by tossing in the pouch. Either way, the ambiquity adds to the final bitterness of the humor and thus our impression of the novel.

No clear catharsis has taken place. There has been the moment of illumination with Yellow Calf, but no convincing evidence of a significant change in the narrator as a result. The wise fool is wise enough to see some humor in his winter moods, but not enough a fool to be able, like Lame Bull, to drink a healthy toast to life after his grandmother's death. As an artist-trickster he has manipulated his experiences into words and those words into passages presented in a certain order to create the narrative we read. But he cannot "trick" himself into happiness or fulfillment or satisfaction. Humor thus remains an indication of his perceptiveness, a reminder of his ability to partially control and protect his life. And yet it is ultimately a bitter humor because he has not closed the distance within himself and between himself and others enough to see the punch lines. (pp. 138-39)

Andrew Horton, "The Bitter Humor of 'Winter in the Blood'," in American Indian Quarterly (copyright © Society for American Indian Studies & Research 1978), Vol, 4, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 131-39.

Alan R. Velie

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Winter in the Blood is in no way a protest novel. Not only is it far more complex, it really is neither bitter nor angry. In fact, although it is powerful and moving in places, it is primarily comic.

Once one abandons the idea that all Indian novels must be angry, it is not surprising to find that Winter in the Blood has a strong comic undercurrent. The comic novel is becoming the dominant genre in fiction today…. And Welch, although he is isolated geographically in Montana, is a writer who is well aware of literary trends. Much of his poetry evinces the influence of the surrealism which Robert Bly and James Wright have imported from South America. In his fiction he employs his own variation of the black humor used by Reed, Pynchon, et al. (p. 142)

Welch's humor varies from raucous farce to subtle satire, and it informs every corner of the novel. (pp. 143-44)

Most of the humor is verbal, however. Welch makes masterful use of ironic diction to undercut the dignity of his characters. (p. 144)

However long a list we make of funny things in Winter in the Blood, two questions arise: How much humor is enough to make a novel comic, and what happens if in addition to the humor there is a good deal of pathos? It is impossible to give a quantitative answer to the first question, but both questions can be answered at once if we say that in a comic novel the author plays most key situations for laughs rather than pathos…. There is some genuine pathos in Winter in the Blood, the most obvious example being the death of Mose. But in the most important scenes, the epiphany in which the hero recognizes his roots, and the funeral, Welch deliberately opts for comedy. (pp. 144-45)

Perhaps the best, funniest, and most successful scene in the novel is the ending. Normally funerals are not the stuff of comedy since death is not something people usually laugh about. If treated properly however, anything, even death, can be a source of humor, and Welch succeeds in making the funeral comic. (p. 146)

Lame Bull's eulogy for the old woman is a highly comic masterpiece of left-handed praise: "Here lies a simple woman … who devoted her life to … rocking … and not a bad word about anybody…. Not the best mother in the world … but a good mother, notwithstanding … who could take it and dish it out … who never gave anybody any crap."… As counterpoint to Lame Bull's speech, we have the random thoughts of the hero, who is not sufficiently interested in the proceedings to keep his mind on them…. Obviously Welch is not taking his hero seriously here, nor treating the funeral as a serious occasion. Quite clearly he is presenting the situation comically so that it will amuse the reader.

Winter in the Blood starts and ends on a comic note. In between the tone varies from pathos … to farce…. It never approaches the stridency and bitterness of a protest novel. Throughout most of the book and certainly in most of the key scenes, the tone is richly comic. (pp. 146-47)

Alan R. Velie, "'Winter in the Blood' as Comic Novel," in American Indian Quarterly (copyright © Society for American Indian Studies & Research 1978), Vol. 4, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 141-47.

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