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A short note about this spare, elegant novel.

This is another book I’ve been carrying with me for years, always in a pile to read but never quite reaching the surface. I can’t say for sure but I suspect I was given it as a gift when I lived in Montana (I left there in 1998). Like a lot of books set in Montana, Winter in the Blood evokes the the landscape that defines the place and as I read it on the train during my London commute, I was thrust back to my long drives across the state, from Browning – heart of the Blackfoot Reservation –  down through the prairie along Highway 89 toward Great Falls. James Welch avoids the trap of writing about the scenery the way a tourist might, and instead of rhapsodizing about the snow capped peaks and lush grain fields, he described the way a fly rubs its hands together and how a cow craps itself.

Winter in the Blood is the story of a few months in the life of an aimless, nameless narrator, an Indian man who acts and is treated younger than he is (“I’m 32,” he interjects every time someone calls him a boy). Haunted by the death of his brother years before, he drifts across the land, helping at his mother’s farm between dissolute trips into town, which begin in bars and end in bed with a series of anonymous women. Nominally in search of a former girlfriend who stole his gun and razor – perhaps a too-obvious metaphor of the emasculation of the Native American – he find more meaning in visits with an old, blind Blackfoot man who survived the harsh winter that devastated his tribe nearly a century earlier. Death lingers everywhere, claiming relatives and livestock without remorse, and nature is the only source of permanence. The farm’s animals are drawn with more character and personality than the barflies and vagabonds the hero encounters in town, and as he loses his money and possessions in surreal and drunken encounters, it’s his labor on the farm that he returns to and that offers him a connection to the land and his past.

Books completed this year:

1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)
5, Beautiful Ruins (Walter)
6 Petropolis (Ulinich)
7, The Caves of Steel (Asimov)
9, Winter in the Blood (Welch)

 

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