Winter in the Blood

by James Welch

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Winter in the Blood intertwines the narrator’s tale of passage from a boy to a man with the mysterious story of his grandmother’s role in the Blackfeet tribe’s tragic past. The book consists of four sections of varied lengths and a brief epilogue.

Winter in the Blood begins as the narrator returns home from a drunken escapade to find that Agnes, the woman with whom he has been living, is gone and has stolen his gun and electric razor. Attempting to forget about the woman and his things, the narrator helps his mother and Lame Bull with the ranch chores. Lame Bull marries Teresa, making him an owner of the ranch, a role into which he throws himself with relish.

Teresa’s marriage triggers the narrator’s memory of his father and brother’s deaths. He talks with Teresa about First Raise and is disturbed by the fact that she remembers their life together much differently than he does. Teresa further uproots her son by telling him that there is no work for him on the ranch now that Lame Bull is in charge. When Agnes is spotted in Malta, the narrator decides to go after her. As his thoughts return to Agnes, he makes the reader aware of his grandmother’s reasons for hating the young woman. Once the youngest wife of a Blackfeet chief, the grandmother hates Crees for what she believes to be their treachery. Crees had scouted for the cavalry, the Long Knives, who chased the Blackfeet from their home at the base of the mountains. The narrator repeats his grandmother’s story of a winter of starvation and the death of her husband. She was cast out by the tribe in mourning for their chief. The narrator believes his grandmother when she says that the women of the tribe envied her beauty. He also believes the rumor that a half-breed drifter with whom his grandmother settled down wasn’t his real grandfather.

The narrator temporarily sets aside his grandmother’s story and catches a ride to Dodson, a nearby town with a bus stop. The narrator travels on to Malta, where he is quickly caught up in a series of bewildering events. He helps Agnes’s brother roll a drunken white, meets an Easterner running from a mysterious past, and falls into bed with a barmaid.

Back home briefly at the beginning of part 2, the narrator visits Yellow Calf and is drawn to the blind old man who claims to understand the calls of animals. On the road again, checking out a report of Agnes in Havre, the narrator runs into the Easterner, who is running from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and agrees to drive him across the Canadian border. Before the two can set out, the narrator’s companion is apprehended, and the narrator is punched in a bar by Agnes’s brother. Tired “of town, of walking home hung over, beaten up, or both,” he hitches a ride back to the ranch in part 3. His grandmother has died. The narrator and Lame Bull dig the woman’s grave. He is reminded of hacking First Raise’s grave out of the frozen earth and remembers the time he and his brother ran their father’s cattle, the day Mose was struck on the highway and killed.

In part 4, the narrator returns to Yellow Calf’s shack. Yellow Calf knows the truth about the narrator’s grandmother. The Blackfeet thought that the woman, the newest member of the tribe, had brought them “bad medicine,” that she had been responsible for their devastation. The narrator wonders how his grandmother avoided starvation in the abandoned tepees on...

(This entire section contains 823 words.)

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the edge of camp. Yellow Calf does not say so, but the narrator is convinced that the old man hunted to feed his grandmother, kept her alive, and had a child with her. Yellow Calf is his real grandfather.

On the way home from Yellow Calf’s shack, the narrator discovers a cow stuck up to her chest in mud. It is the same wild-eyed animal that started the panic of his father’s cattle on the day that Mose was killed trying to stop the herd from running across the highway. Roping the cow to his saddle horn, the narrator mounts his horse, Bird, and attempts to pull the beast out of the muck. When Bird loses his footing and falls, throwing the narrator to his back, the cow slips down the bank of the slough in which she had been stuck. Lying unable to move, listening to the two animals’ final cries, the narrator experiences a feeling of pleasant calm as he is soaked by a summer rain.

The old woman’s lonely burial is related in the epilogue. Teresa moans as Lame Bull utters a vague memorial. The book concludes with the image of the narrator throwing his grandmother’s tobacco pouch into her grave.