Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden


“Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.”

Winter Counts is a compelling debut novel. Although this book uses elements and tropes of the thriller genre, the narrative isn’t solely focused on its ‘loner vigilante vs. bad guys’ storyline (which is perhaps the novel’s weakest aspect). In fact, throughout the course of his narrative, David Heska Wanbli Weiden sheds light on America’s past and present systemic oppression of Native people.
Usually, I’m more of a character over setting kind of reader but not with Winter Counts. Weiden renders Virgil’s community, Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in a very evocative way. While Weiden doesn’t shy away from delving into the everyday injustices and/or bleak circumstances of those who are living on the reservation (alcoholism, drugs, mental illnesses, poverty), he also shows how important, and ultimately life-affirming, traditional practices and beliefs are.

When we first meet Virgil he seems to be removed from his own culture. Many on the reservation have treated poorly for being a “half-breed” and the death of his closest relatives has left him alone. Or almost alone as after the death of his sister he has become the sole carer of his nephew, Nathan. When the local council and American’s legal system let pedophiles and sex offenders go unpunished, Virgil is the one you hire.

“When the legal system broke down like this, people came to me. For a few hundred bucks they’d get some measure of revenge. My contribution to the justice system.”

His work as a vigilante has earned him a bit of a reputation and soured his relationship with his now ex, Marie. When Virgil receives an offer from Marie’s father, a tribal councilman, he’s hesitant to take the job. Someone is bringing heroin into their community and young people are overdosing. Virgil believes that this is one of the few cases that the feds will actually pursue (unlike the “sex assault cases, thefts, assault and battery” cases that the tribal court refers to them) so doesn’t see the point in involving himself…that is until heroin finds Nathan.
Virgil is forced to collaborate with the same people who have time and again failed his people, and finds himself rekindling his relationship with Marie, who is eager to help her community.
The strongest moments in this novel are the ones that are less-action—or suspense—fuelled. Those scenes in which characters are talking about Lakota customs, beliefs, and language were the more poignant and interesting moments in the narrative. Marie was perhaps the most compelling character in the novel, as her desire to improve life on the rez actually begins to break through Virgil’s more pessimistic worldview.
Part of me wishes that this book had not employed a first pov as Virgil’s narration didn’t really add any layers to his character (his conversations with others and actions give a clear impression of what kind of person he is). The first pov seemed kind of restrictive as in more than one occasion I found myself wanting to read from Nathan and Marie’s perspectives (perhaps because I felt more connected to them than Virgil). Virgil’s narration was also kind of repetitive. His inner monologue often consisted in repeating information that had been previously related through dialogue (Weiden, trust your readers!).
As I said, Weiden excels at setting. Even those scenes that take place outside the rez, were vividly depicted. Weiden takes a very straight-forward approach when discussing, depicting, or touching up on issues such as the racism and injustices, as well as the many legal and societal biases, Native people experience, the ramifications of colonialism, and generational trauma. Although there are some violent scenes at the beginning and in the final act of the novel, Weiden demonstrate extreme empathy when recounting the Wounded Knee Massacre.
I also appreciate that during the course of the story Virgil, Marie, and Nathan are struggling to do the ‘right’ thing. At times their efforts to do good are misunderstood or miss the mark. Marie in particular is placed in a particularly difficult position.
The characterisation of the main bad guy (whose identity won’t be all that surprising to readers of thrillers) leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the side characters could have benefitted from some more ‘page-time’ but they nevertheless felt more dimensional than our ‘villain’.

Overall, I think this was a very solid debut novel. While I wasn’t all that taken by the thriller storyline (which was formulaic), I did find Weiden’s portrayal of Virgil’s community, as well as his relationship with Nathan and Marie, to be extremely compelling. Thankfully the story doesn’t solely focus on action, and we get plenty of scenes in which characters discuss their circumstances, their history, and their future.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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