Back in the sixties and early seventies there was an subversive unorganized group of young people in this country which eschewed the shark-skin trappings of modern society and embraced the dirt and feathers of a more communal lifestyle. These neo-aborigines called themselves Diggers or Hippies or Survivalists or potato farmers but they all seemed to turn away from the benefits of an industrial society and self-fertilize their own bean fields.
In the early seventies I cut cardboard and recycled it as postcards, spent a year eating organ meats and then another year depriving myself of anything with a face. I am absolutely certain that it was such dieting which gave us the all-purpose expression, “That’s some weird shit.” I lived in Newark which was then a focal point for ethnic rioting and family crime so it was not easy to be a Digger and a compost heap was out of the question unless I kept it in the backseat of my lemon-yellow Bug.
I grew out of bean bag chairs, coat closets dedicated to sprouting mung beans, and macrobiotic cracker crumbs in the bed when I realized I was making good money and could have my very own color television. I also bought some trendy clothes, filled a shelf in the refrigerator with fine champagne, and did a half-gainer into the free and open female population that was everywhere I looked. From Digger to Yuppie almost overnight.
But one theme that continued to run through my life was that of the Native American. In my hipper days I read a great deal about the American tribes and the idea of returning to the spirituality of the land was always strong, even if somewhat nostalgic. I never even tried.
One of the most influential books by a Native American is House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday. If you haven’t read it, please do so without delay. First, it’s an excellent novel, notwithstanding the Native American themes. I suppose there is a tendency to not be too critical of writing by the original Americans, what with the history of death and destruction we have brought to their civilization ever since we landed on these shores to take what we wanted and kill anyone who might try to stop us, but in this case the writing is truly excellent and very effective.
House Made of Dawn is, like so many great novels, complex, layered, shocking, spiritual, unforgettable. It is important to recognize that this is a story: it may be depicting the struggle between different lives and cultures, or the development of a spiritual identity, or the varieties of life on the edges of mainstream America, but it is always a story, much like Momaday’s Kiowa father might have told in the evening by the fire with the snow falling over the hogan. The plot, if you will, concerns a young Native American returned from WWII, finding trouble at home, spending time in prison, trying to adjust to life in an American city, returning to his home and completing his spiritual awakening.
But the plot is the least important part of the novel. Momaday evokes the spirit of the land and life in a variety of beautiful, poetic passages, and in some of the sharpest realistic depictions in literature. Just the manner of telling the story is fascinating: it’s both unique and at the same time it borrows from many different styles (even Faulkner). House Made of Dawn is short and should be read more than once. It’s that good.