N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn

The late 1960s kind of make me cranky. I can't help imagining self-satisfied boomers thinking fondly back on the revolution, sipping their Pinot Grigio and (still) listening to the Rolling Stones - or something similar, anyway, not something as straightforwardly stereotypical as that. But in the same way that the younger me deliberately avoided immersion in Americana (literature, movies, politics) because I naively thought I could avoid colonization, I've maintained some distance from that celebrated time.

Usually that's fine, but tonight I'm acutely aware that my past bloody-mindedness limits my ability to recognize - or assess, I suppose, but "recognize" is the verb I want - the achievement of N. Scott Momaday in his 1968 novel House Made of Dawn. I know the standard praise and objections, that it either (a) links the diction of classic English literature with oral First Nations literature of this continent, or (b) subjugates First Nations stories and traditions in an attempt to gain favour within the dominant culture that developed from - among other things - classic English literature. I'm not able to take a firm stance on the arguments, though, because frankly the late 1960s are too remote for me, and these particular forms of these arguments are deeply rooted in the late-1960s cultural moment. I can't tell whether I'm getting it wrong in the really important ways, the ways that I try to keep from coming up when I'm teaching introductory literature classes and my grip on a text isn't sure.

All I know is that there's a distinct beauty to this novel. There are elements of horror, too, in the small details so precisely evocative of physical pain suffered by Abel (the main character), in Milly's pain at her accumulated family losses, and in the post-lapsarian decadence for Native Americans living in Los Angeles at that time, but many of the characters - no matter their circumstance - remain open to beauty. Maybe it's the landscape, maybe it's a sense of community, maybe it's seawater beading on a young woman's bare legs, but the key is that this is a world of meaning, of possibility. This is a world where hope lives. Amid justified despair, certainly, but at least hope lives.

But what seduced me, really, was the phrasing. It just sounds good, you know? And I'm a sucker for a well-turned sentence, especially when one's followed by whole pages of them. Politics be damned, for tonight.


Popular Posts