Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Winter in the Blood, James Welch introduces the themes and techniques he would continue to develop in later works. The novel begins the project of establishing through literary means the identity of the Native American. Welch was born in Browning, Montana, a small town that serves as the headquarters of the Blackfeet reservation. He attended high schools on both the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana. He is the author of a book of poems, Riding the Earthboy Forty (1971), that evokes life on the reservation, and he was at one time a professor of Indian studies at the University of Washington; his efforts toward cultural preservation have thus been varied and significant. The themes and techniques of his first novel reflect this concern. The narrator is able to understand that his true pursuit is not of his appetites but his heritage. His boyhood heroes had been the white cowboy actors who rode and roped on the big screen. This ironic confession demonstrates the scarcity in Western arts of representations of Native Americans, a lack that Welch himself seeks to fill.

The first-person narrative of self-discovery and the elaborate time sequence of the novel are techniques that illuminate the theme of cultural reconstruction. The plot switches between three time frames: the present, the narrator’s youth, and the youth of his grandmother. As the narrator reexamines his own past, he realizes that the history of his people is a forgotten but nevertheless important part of his consciousness. Welch’s later works The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), and The Indian Lawyer (1990) are perhaps more ambitious in scope, but the impetus for these works is located in the pathos, comedy, and celebration that has attracted the attention of scores of critics to Winter in the Blood.