Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Book review by Mark D. Walker - House Made of Dawn

I learned about the author of House Made of Dawn on an “American Masters” documentary, “Words from a Bear” that portrayed him as a voice of Native American Renaissance in art and literature, which led to a breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream. Like many Americans, my awareness of the Native American was raised by historian Dee Brown’s 1970 best-selling book, “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee,” which told about the massacre of several hundred Lakota Indians (mostly women and children) by soldiers of the U.S. Army. Scott Momaday was brought up around places I’d lived and worked in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, and this book received a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

The main character, Abel, has come home to New Mexico from war only to find himself caught between two worlds. The one world is modern and industrial, claiming his soul and leading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of depravity and despair. The author expresses a wariness of the white man’s world and language:

On every side of him, there are words by the millions, an unending succession of pamphlets and papers, letters and books, bills and bulletins, commentaries and conversations. He has diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in upon him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language—for the World itself—as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word. 

In contrast, his grandfather would orient him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the Southwest, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. 

These things he told his grandsons carefully, slowly and at length, because they were old and true, and they could be lost forever as easily as one generation is lost to the next, as easily as on old man might lose his voice….And he knew they knew, (his grandsons) and he took them with him to the fields and they cut open the earth and touched the corn and ate sweet melons in the sun. 

Considered by some as the “dean” of Native American writers, Momaday was proficient in fiction, poetry, painting and printmaking. He used his familiarity with both Native American life and legend as well as the modern world, building a bridge between the two.

The New York Times Book Review found this book, “as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware.” And I’d agree with the critique of this book from The Paris Review, “both a masterpiece about the universal human condition and a masterpiece of Native American literature.” 

Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He came to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make a Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking. 

Several of his articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines while another appeared in Crossing Class: The Invisible Wall, an anthology published by Wising Up Press. His reviews have been published by Revue Magazine as well as Peace Corps Worldwide, including one on Paul Theroux’s latest book, Figures in a Landscape. His honors include the "Service Above Self" award from Rotary International. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. 

His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Authors Association for nonfiction and according to the Midwest Review, “. . . is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery . . .”  You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com 

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