N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017


This is going to be a pretty short post. I finished the book but I didn’t get along with it. It had its moments but overall it was frustrating to read.

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn was N. Scott Momaday’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Critics say it’s his most inaccessible novel. Since it’s the first book, I’ve read by him, I can’t say whether the later novels are more accessible or not, I can just confirm that this one is not. At first the writing reminded me of the more challenging Toni Morrison novels I’ve read (Jazz came to mind), but while I could always make sense of her books, this one lost me. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful moments and chapters but it goes back and forth in the chronology, uses stream-of-consciousness, fragments, bits from dreams, mythology. The worst was that I wasn’t always sure whose stream-of consciousness I was reading. And I was never sure why he chose the different approaches. At times, it felt like some of the chapters were creative writing exercises. The chapter that was the most readable read like a short story. It comes towards the end and it helped me make sense of what came before. It’s very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The biggest problem I had is that there is no real story. We just follow the protagonist, Abel, stumble from one episode to the next.

Like Abel, the main protagonist, Momaday grew up on different reservations. What Momaday manages to convey is the confusion. The culture Abel grows up in, isn’t intact. Some of it is part of his heritage but a lot is part of other Native American heritages. Then he joins up and fights during WWII. When he comes back, like his mother and brother, he starts to drink. He kills a man, is sent to prison, comes back and drinks again and gets into fights.

We’re held at arm’s length the whole time, never get a good feeling for Abel’s’ emotions.

The beginning was hard to read because there are descriptions of hunting that made me sick. One in particular, in which Abel captures an eagle.

I’m also not entirely sure, this was a good choice for the readalong. Yes, Abel seems to suffer from PTSD, but he suffers from a lot of other things too. He might not have been better off if he hadn’t joined up.

I’m sorry for this lousy review. I hope someone else has read along and enjoyed it more. I’m sure, if I wanted to spend a couple of days doing research, read secondary literature, then I would find more to like but I’m not really in the mood for that.


Other Review

TJ@My Book Strings


House Made of Dawn is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Magnus by Sylvie Germain. Discussion starts on Tuesday 28 February, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

31 thoughts on “N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017

  1. Thank you for the review. It’s a shame it turned out to be so challenging to read. I haven’t read much by native Americans and was looking forward to reading this one. Perhaps the author found it difficult to write and so that’s why it is in fragments?

    Anyway I don’t think you should blame yourself for choosing it. I love the range of books that you include in the readalong.

    • Thank you for saying so, Caroline.
      I feel responsible when I choose a book. Louise Erdrich doesn’t tell straightforward stories, rather short stories that are connected but it still feels like a whole. This is too uneven. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts though. There are brilliant and lyrical passages I really appreciated but many were too confused.

  2. It’s always difficult to review a book that has given rise to a frustrating reading experience, but you’ve done a good job in articulating why it didn’t fly for you…

    • Thanks Jacqui. If it hadn’t been a readalong title I’d have skipped this post but I think it will still give people an impression. Quotes wouldn’t gave been useful as the individual parts are lovely and readable. It’s the whole that was frustrating.

  3. I’m sorry to say that my reading experience wasn’t any better than yours. I couldn’t really connect to the story as a whole, even though there were so many memorable passages. Well, let’s forget this one and move on to the next selection. They can’t all be winners. 🙂

    • It was too bad. Time played a role. Not because it wasn’t the right moment but I didn’t have enough of it. It’s a book one should be able to read very slowly.
      And I’m very ‘animal sensitive’. Any mention of cruelty, hunting etc . it affects me and stays with me for days and kills off my appreciation of a book.
      Even if it’s not gratuitous at all, which it wasn’t here.

  4. Have you read other novels by aboriginal writers? Or only Erdrich? I’ve only scanned your post because I have only read three of the four parts, and I do find it interesting that you seem to have found the last section the most enjoyable? Overall, I think I’ve had a much more satisfying reading experience than you, but I would agree that it’s been challenging (haven’t read that particular Toni Morrison) and I probably would have set it aside if it weren’t for your discussion. My sense is that it is much more about conflict and war than it seems at first glance, but I hesitate to say more until I’ve finished reading.

    • Yes, I’ve read quite a few. I studied cultural anthropology and one area of interest were aboriginal writers. Erdrich and others. I can’t remember all the names. So, the descriptions of rituals/rites etc made perfect sense also the fact that he tries to incorporate oral tradition.
      It’s the second to last part that I really liked. It’s called The Night Chanter. It’s like the character, Ben, is talking to someone. It made me understand more.
      I guess even the hunting scenes might have something to do with the war topic.
      What writers would you recommend?
      I’ll hope you’ll review it. I’d be interested to read your thoughts.

      • That’s the part I thought you meant and I think it was my favourite part too; I didn’t realise (until I’d finished) that there was actually one more short part after that one. That’s the segment that made me feel most connected to the story, but still very distanced from it too. Though I think that is deliberate, because there are so many fragments to his identity (and not just his, but we get a better view of him than most of the characters). Still, I think that’s what made it a very difficult reading experience for me. As for other south-of-the-US-border rec’s, you’ve probably already read Sherman Alexie if your course included Erdrich. For more northerly fare, I wholeheartedly recommend (in general, not for the RAL) Eden Robinson and Thomas King who, like Alexie, employ humour in exploring the fragmentation and darkness. (For the RAL, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road would suit.)

        • I was wondering if some of the disorientation didn’t come from the fact that he describes different people. Jimenez, Kiowa and others. Their traditions are fragmented.
          Eden Robinson is new to he. Thanks for the recommendation. I had looked at Boyden for the readalong but was afraid it would be too depressing. I’m still interested though.

    • Thanks, Carole.
      It changed between now points of view somewhat arbitrarily and there were passages that were otherwise confusing. I don’t think this would be for you.

  5. Your review is not lousy. There are some books that one will just not like.

    Though I tend to like books with unconventional structures, if not handled correctly such things can turn into a mess. Stream of consciousness when one cannot tell whose consciousness is steaming does not sounds good.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      There were things that I could have mentioned but didn’t because I didn’t enjoy diving as deeply as a should have. But that’s more from a cultural than from a literary approach. Overall, I feel this didn’t work.

  6. I am SO glad to read this (actually just skimmed your post) as I am finding this a challenging read and one I am not enjoying as much as I had hoped. The eagle scene was also disturbing for me. I have put my difficulties down to reading this at the gym and I always seem to be riding the stationary bike while the TV is playing loudly on CNN, which is a different (and upsetting considering the daily news) kind of distraction. It keeps me from focusing so much on the story, which I think is a story that needs concentration. He uses a lot of description, which generally I like but sometimes it is vague and I get confused as to who is thinking or talking and then I start drifting mentally. So, I will finish reading but I think I will need to read other reviews or some criticism to understand just what is going on! Maybe, actually, this is the sort of book that needs to be read in a group as others might have good information to share? I think it is simply a difficult text and a kind of story I am not used to/familiar with (have read little to no Native literature).

    • I read this in the evening, in a quiet environment and found it challenging. I would have understood zero in a gym. 🙂
      And the eagle scene is very disturbing.
      Not an easy read at all. I’ve never seen that mentioned anywhere. I find that strange.
      I read a couple of online analyses and that helped but the worst is what you mention too that it’s not always clear whose head we are in. The descriptions were beautiful though.

  7. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong September 2017: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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