Literature and War Readalong: House Made of Dawn

1872929N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn was January’s pick for the Literature and War Readalong that is hosted by Caroline. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and is credited with bringing Native American literature into the mainstream. According to Momaday, he used his experiences of growing up on different reservations to compose his story, and the main character, Abel, is the composite of several boys he knew growing up. As such, I believe this book should be read, and deserves to be read. I am glad that I did finally read it, but unfortunately, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it. I found it challenging and difficult.

My biggest problem was that I could not find a story thread to follow. According to Wikipedia (I admit, not the best source), House Made of Dawn was first perceived as a collection of poems, was then reworked as a collection of short stories, and was only then molded into a novel. For me, this conversion was not successful. It wasn’t until I decided to give up my search for a cohesive story and read the book as a collection of memories and experiences instead that I started to get along better with it. Instead of trying to figure out what was going on with Abel, I was able to focus on the writing, which in many instances is beautiful and evocative.

Just like the story never felt cohesive to me, Abel never felt like a solid character I could get to know either. It is clear that Abel is searching for meaning and connection in his life. It is obvious that he suffers from PTSD and alcoholism. I was unable to figure out why. Was it because people very close to him (definitely his mother and someone I think was a father figure) died when he was very young? Was it because he fought in the war? Was it because he was unable to connect to his ancestors’ way of life? Any one of these would be very legitimate reasons, but I wish I had been able to make it personal and specific to Abel. I wanted to connect more with the tragedy of his life, but couldn’t find a way to do it.

The 1968 edition I have of this book says on the first page:

“For the America that used him and then destroyed him, he was a question that could not be answered.”

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m not supposed to find answers to my questions because there are none. It would be an interesting point to discuss with more knowledgeable people, but purely as a reading experience, I found it unsatisfactory.

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14 comments

  1. This sounds like a tough and frustrating read. I don’t think I would make it through. At least I’m glad some of the passages are beautifully rendered.

  2. Both you and Caroline seem to agree about this book. It does sound like a good one to read for a discussion, but perhaps there are better ones… Hopefully your next pick will be more satisfying!

  3. I read Caroline’s review of this a little earlier so it’s interesting to see that you felt much the same way. It sounds like a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts, but not entirely successful/accessible. Nevertheless, I agree that it can be worthwhile to delve into these topics…

  4. Thank you so much for reading along. I see, we felt the same about. There were beautiful parts but mostly I felt like walking in the dark. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one because I started to doubt myself.
    I rememer reading thus about it being poems, then short stories and finally a novel. No wonder it’s so chaotic. I really liked Ben’s chapter though.

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