(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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,...

(The entire section is 823 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Winter in the Blood, Welch’s first novel, met with almost unanimous critical acclaim, establishing its author as a major novelist. Narrated by its unnamed protagonist, a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian man, the story develops in a series of aimless adventures in dusty towns and bars on the edge of the reservation. The narrator, searching half-heartedly for the girlfriend who has run off with his rifle and electric razor, appears only marginally interested in his own actions. His father and brother, the only people with whom he had ever been close, are both dead, but he is more aware of their absence than of the world around him. By reliving the painful memories of their deaths, the narrator begins to come to terms with their demise. The novel’s ending is ambivalent about the protagonist’s future, but he appears to be moving to take control of his life.

The book’s central theme is alienation. The narrator, whose namelessness underscores his estrangement, describes himself as a “servant to a memory of death.” Indeed, memories of death are the only events in which he fully participates: First Raise, his father, froze on his way home from Dodson, where he drank with the white ranchers and made them laugh; Mose, his brother, was killed in an automobile crash while herding cattle.

A solitary protagonist preoccupied with death, dusty towns, and a bleak and endless landscape—such elements seem to describe a Montana version of the alienated, half-real, half-surreal worlds portrayed by writers Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. There is, however, a starkly lyrical element in Welch’s language that sets his work apart from the tradition of European surrealism. The landscape may be harsh and distant, but it is not without grace or voice. Detached as he is, Welch’s narrator is still aware of the vastness of the land. He is close, so to speak, to its distance. When the night sky clears, he wonders about the stars: “One looked at them with the feeling that he might not...

(The entire section is 820 words.)