I first heard of Welch last week and I ordered this book the same day. I am glad I did. Born in Montana in 1940 to Native American parents, his father was of the Blackfeet people while his mother was Gros Ventre or A’aninin. When describing his own background Welch apparently liked to add, “with a small amount of Irish thrown in”.
The book was published in 1974 and in that year the Pulitzer declined to award a prize in its fiction category, something Louise Erdrich in her introduction, says was a mistake, that it should have gone to this slim (135 page) volume. She concludes her introduction with the following, which may also help explain why it won nothing:
“To be loyal… and write from your own direct core, is not ever in fashion. But it is always the right thing to do. Truth wears well, and Winter in the Blood is a true book.”
It is the sparse story a young Native American man moving between his life on the reservation and his work off it. The sentences are terse and clear. The story told is without fuss or elaboration. There’s something here that Edward Hopper paintings or early Tom Waits songs also captured: a central loneliness of existence. Not that the unnamed protagonist agonises over these matters, he just moves from home to bar, out to the horses – one old horse, Bird, in particular – that he works on. And sometimes he remembers his older brother and his father, both dead now.
Contained in single paragraphs, there is enough for some writers to fill a short story:
Long Knife came from a long line of cowboys. Even his mother, perhaps the best of them all, rode all day, every day, when it came time to round up the cattle for branding. In the makeshift pen, she wrestled calves, castrated them, the threw the balls into the ashes of the branding fire. She made a point of eating the roast balls, while glaring at one man, then another – even her sons, who, like the rest of us, stared at the brown hills until she was done.
Ten years had passed since that winter day his wandering ended, but nothing of any consequence had happened to me. I had had my opportunity, a chance to work in the rehabilitation clinic in Tacoma. They liked me because I was smarter than practically anybody else they had ever seen. That’s what they said and I believed them. It took a nurse who hated Indians to tell me the truth, that they needed a grant to build another wing and I was to be the first of the male Indians they needed to employ in order to get the grant. She turned out to be my benefactor. So I came home.
The writer I am most reminded of by Welch is Denis Johnson, in his short stories: language pared right back. Effective because of its economy. This is a fine novel.
Welch died at the age of 62 by which time he had won many awards, including in 1997 Welch received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas and taught English at Cornell and Washington Universities.