Thursday, April 29, 2021

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

First Line: I leaned back in the seat of my old Ford Pinto, listening to the sounds coming from the Depot, the reservation's only tavern.
 
Virgil Wounded Horse skates along by working an endless variety of temporary jobs, but his real occupation is as an enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When the American legal system denies any Lakota on the reservation justice, they can hire Virgil to dispense his own-- painful and memorable-- brand of punishment.

Then heroin makes its way to the reservation and threatens Virgil's only family, his fourteen-year-old nephew, Nathan. Now it's personal, and Virgil enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend to learn where the drugs are coming from and how to make them stop. It's a journey that will force Virgil to face his own demons and to reclaim his Native identity.

~

As a rule, I avoid crime fiction involving drugs, but something told me that Winter Counts would be different. I was right. One of the greatest tools in a writer's arsenal is voice, and the voice of Virgil Wounded Horse immediately drew me into this story. You wouldn't think that a character whose main occupation is beating people to a pulp would interest me, but Virgil isn't your stereotypical violent musclebound oaf. No, Virgil has a strong moral compass which is easily seen when he's offered $5,000 to do a job for a member of the tribal council. $5,000 is more than Virgil makes in a year, but Virgil doesn't jump at the chance to earn all that money because the entire situation doesn't "smell right" to him.

Virgil, his teenage nephew Nathan, and Virgil's ex-girlfriend Marie show the effects of reservation life on three different types of people. Virgil represents what can happen to a poorly educated person on the reservation. Nathan shows us the dangers of reservation life for the young, and educated Marie shows us how many Lakota are trying to improve life on the reservation. All three characters are well-drawn and utterly believable.

Not only did I find myself immersed in the story, but Winter Counts was also a learning experience for me. I had an idea that the American legal system did Native Americans no favors, but I hadn't realized just how abysmally the law treats them. It should not have come as such a surprise. But the law wasn't the only area in which I learned new things. Winter Counts is rich in Lakota history, spirituality, culture, and food. (By the way, do not call the Lakota "Sioux"-- it's another one of those Caucasian derogatory terms.)

The only thing that kept this book from being one of my Best Reads of the year was the fact that, for a mystery, the identity of the chief bad guy and other elements were much too obvious. But with a character like Virgil and the other riches that the author serves up in Winter Counts, that's a small complaint indeed. I highly recommend this book, and I look forward to Weiden's next novel.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
eiSBN: 9780062968968
Ecco Books © 2020
eBook, 336 pages
 
Standalone Thriller, Native American mystery
Rating: A
Source: Purchased from Amazon.

13 comments:

  1. Good to read this. Will put it somewhere on my TBR list.
    I have a friend who is Lakota, and has helped to educate me about proper terminology and punctuation for years. She is a main organizer of the National Day of Mourning held in Plymouth, Mass. every year on "Thanksgiving," to honor Indigenous peoples.

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    1. And Indigenous peoples certainly have much to mourn on that day.

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  2. This sounds terrific, Cathy. I do like the setting, both physical and cultural, and I agree with you that the narrator's voice can make all the difference. Virgil sounds like someone I'd want to meet. Like you, I don't typically go for books with a drug theme like that, but there are always exceptions...

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    1. And I'm so glad I made an exception for this one!

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  3. Sounds interesting, Cathy. I'm not familiar with Weiden or his work, but he certainly has an interesting name. The central character of this one is intriguing as all get out, too, so it's going on my list of books to poke my library about.

    A couple of summers I spent a week wandering around the general area of the Little Big Horn battle and over into Monument Valley, and I learned a lot about the Lakota tribe's history, but I had not realized that "Sioux" was a derogatory term other than that they did not appreciate being lumped into a tribal identification that was not accurate. Interesting.

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    1. Something tells me that you didn't mean Monument Valley...did you?

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    2. I wandered through Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, and Montana for almost two weeks that summer. Monument Valley was one of the stops, and at this point I couldn't even tell you how far apart those two points are...although, I do recall that Monument Valley was, I think, on Navajo land and not Lakota. I was more intrigued by the Lakota people because of some of the books I picked up about the fight with Custer in an amazing indie bookstore in Cody.

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    3. That's a whole lot of travel in two weeks! Yes, Monument Valley is in Arizona on Navajo land up by the Utah border. Denis and I have been on all-day guided tours of Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. We love it up there.

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  4. A new author for me, but my weakness is for character, and I think I need to meet Virgil!

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  5. This is the next title for my book club. I was already interested, and anticipate plenty to discuss!

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    1. I would think there'd be a lively discussion. Too bad I can't be a fly on the wall.

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