Like Abel in the novel, Momaday grew up on Indian reservations, where his parents—his father was a Kiowa Indian while his mother was part Cherokee—worked as educators. He learned much about several Native American cultures throughout this childhood, and he appreciated the land, language, and oral traditions of American Indians. Momaday drew on this familiarity while writing the book, the title of which comes from a Navajo religious ceremony song, "House Made of Dawn."
In House Made of Dawn, Momaday explores complex ideas about American Indian identity, language, landscape, and cultural conflict in a lyrical, stream-of-consciousness style. His sometimes fractured and circular narrative includes folk tales and legends. The novel also features poetic language and movement, influenced by Momaday's primary focus as a writer: poetry. Momaday uses both first-person and third-person points of view and moves around in time with flashbacks to explicate the depth of Abel's pain.
The plot of House Made of Dawn focuses on Abel, a Jemez Pueblo Indian, and his loss of identity as he returns first to his native community after serving in the U.S. military during World War II. While Abel participates in native rituals, he feels no connection to them. He soon kills an albino man, and is sent to prison. Abel's alienation grows deeper after his release from prison. He is sent to Los Angeles, where he is even more alienated than at home. While Abel has friendships with other Native Americans there, especially Ben, he feels even more disconnected from the land, the people, both white and Indian, and himself. Abel finally returns home to New Mexico again after taking a brutal beating in Los Angeles. He is able to reconnect to his home.
Throughout House Made of Dawn are flashbacks from Abel's childhood, which was stained by the deaths of his mother and brother from alcoholism. Abel was raised by his grandfather Francisco, who participates in native religious rituals as well as in the Catholic Church run by Father Olguin. Religion, faith, and ritual play prominent roles in the book; Tosamah connects the faiths in his Los Angeles church for Native Americans. While his grandfather tried to pass on to Abel the importance of tribal rituals, including a sacred tribal run through the valley, it is not until his grandfather's death after his return from Los Angeles that Abel can begin to heal both in body and spirit.
When it was first published in 1968, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn garnered scarce critical and commercial attention. Yet within a year, it won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and had received international critical acclaim. During the early 1970s America became interested in the plight of Native Americans as the truth about reservation life was exposed and publicized by Native American activists. By chronicling the struggles of a young Native American man named Abel, Momaday was able to explore some of the issues and conflicts that faced the Native American community in the 20th century. House Made of Dawn was a crucial link in teaching the general public about the real lives and beliefs of Native Americans. Although most critics admire the poetic beauty of his narrative style, Momaday’s indirect way of storytelling-weaving together past, present, and myth with no apparent order-may prove challenging to some readers who are used to a linear progression of events. Most critics, however, consider this style necessary for understanding Abel and his culture.
The very first section of House Made of Dawn creates the mood for the story. Set in a canyon at sunrise, the protagonist of the novel, Abel, is introduced. Thematic issues that will appear throughout the book are also presented: Abel’s isolation and his struggle to communicate, as well as the communion of man and nature. In addition, it introduces the image of Abel running, which will also be the final image in...
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