Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Winter Counts - David Heska Wanbli Weiden


David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts is largely set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Virgil Wounded Horse offers a measure of justice and revenge to crime victims who are ignored by both their own tribal council and local law enforcement officers. In simple terms, Virgil is the local enforcer — and he is good at his job. 


It is, of course, impossible not to compare a novel like Winter Counts to those of writers like Craig Johnson, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman, C.J. Box,  and others who cover much of the same territory. The good news is that David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel proves that he can hold his on with the best of them. Several members of the club have, in fact, endorsed Winter Counts because of its authenticity, cultural insight, and riveting storytelling. Of all of them, I think that C.J. Box put it best:


“I’ve been waiting most of my life for this book without realizing it. Winter Counts is a knowing, authentic, closely observed novel about modern-day Lakotas that rings absolutely true, warts and all. The sense of place is breathtaking and raw. It’s a hell of a debut.”


Now, I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t give much credence to author blurbs, figuring that they are more often than not just another case of two writers scratching each other’s back. But now that I’ve read Winter Counts for myself, I could not agree more with the blurbs splashed all over the novel’s back cover. 


Virgil Wounded Horse, who as a kid was badly bullied by some of the same people he sees every day on the reservation, knows what it’s like to feel helpless and afraid. That is probably one of the reasons he is always ready (and why he enjoys doing it) to give an unforgettable beating as final warning to those who would otherwise not suffer a thing for their crimes on the reservation. But then Virgil’s nephew Nathan overdoses on the suddenly available heroin he was given for free at the reservation school and nearly dies. Game changer…now it’s all very personal and it’s going to take more than an “unforgettable” beating to satisfy the intense anger that Virgil Wounded Horse is filled with.


With the help of Marie Short Bear, his ex-girlfriend, Virgil tracks the dealer to Denver, but that’s where things get complicated enough to limit his options. Virgil learns that the man he is looking for is only the link into the reservation for some other very powerful people looking for a new market for their product — and that much more powerful men than him are already looking for a way to put the heroin dealers out of business. Unfortunately, Nathan is about to become a pawn in a scheme that could easily get them all killed.


Bottom Line: Winter Counts (winter counts were the Lakota calendar system) is a genuine thriller, one of those coming-of-age stories in which the kid nearing adulthood will be lucky to survive the process. Weiden is one heck of a storyteller, and it’s hard not to tear right through this one. But the novel is so much more than that. Weiden is himself an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and he has filled Winter Counts with cultural insights and history that combine to make it all seem terribly real. His explanation of how and why both the American and Tribal legal systems all too often fail Native Americans is a heartbreaking one. Fiction, though, often spreads the truth more readily than nonfiction accounts of the same situation. Perhaps that is the best thing about books like Winter Counts and Craig Johnson’s more recent Daughter of the Morning Star. Read novels like these and tell your friends about them. Maybe someone will finally listen.


David Heska Wanbli Weiden



(My thanks go to Cathy at Kittling Books for tipping me off to this one back in April with her review of Winter Counts.)

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for introducing me to a new author. This one definitely seems like a worthwhile read.

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    1. I really like the way he tells a story, Dorothy. Can't wait to see what's next.

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  2. This is a new one to me and because I've enjoyed many CJ Box books previously and the Indian Reservation setting, I'm intrigued.

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    1. I think Weiden has the makings for a great series here if he wants to go that route. Virgil, Nathan, and Marie would make great recurring characters, in my estimation.

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  3. You've convinced me! I'm putting this one on my To Read list. :)

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    1. It's a good one, Lark. I hope you get to it at some point.

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  4. I had seen this book but knew nothing about it, so I enjoyed your review. I will be reading it, probably sometime in 2022.

    I am curious, have you read anything by C. J. Box? If so, do you like his books? I have had his first book on my shelves for about 8 years, and haven't gotten around to reading it.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it next year, Tracy. I'm betting that you will. I haven't read anything from Box yet, but I did pick up a copy of his "Endangered" in July when I was in a South Dakota bookstore. Still trying to work it into my schedule...soon, I hope.

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  5. Yes, another one putting this onto my want to read list. It sounds amazing.

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    1. It's a really outstanding debut novel, Cath. I learned a lot from it about Native American culture and problems in today's world from it...and it's a page-turner, too. Win-Win.

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  6. Thanks for the mention, Sam. This is an incredible book, and I can't wait to see what the author comes up with next. Your mention of how the various legal systems treat Native Americans... there are no words. We need to inform ourselves, and we need to do something about it.

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  7. I really wish there were something we could do to help, Cathy. Other than spreading the word, I don't know what that would be and it seems a painfully slow response to the horror of the problem.

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  8. Adding this one to my list! I have a friend who taught at a school on the Rosebud Reservation when she was young and will definitely mention it to her.

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    1. I would love to hear her take on it...truly a "warts and all" kind of setting the way it's used here. That works to make the book all the more believable and heartbreaking.

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  9. Hi Sam, I saw an interview with the author a few months back and meant to put this novel on my list and now with your fine review I am determined to read Winter Counts. It's a great way to find out what life is like today for Native Americans who live on a reservation and this book has gotten great reviews.

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  10. I do think it's a frank look at modern life in a reservation setting, Kathy. The author is not afraid to show all the warts because that feeling of despair and desperation is what drives the plot so well. I will never understand why law enforcement has failed Native women so badly over the years...and continues to do so.

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  11. Sounds like a bright & promising author with this page-turning debut! I will look for it.

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    1. I suspect he's going to do very well in the future, but I can imagine the pressure he is going to be under to equal or top such a great debut.

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