Winter In The Blood Summary

James Welch

Winter In The Blood

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Winter In The Blood Summary

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Winter in the Blood, published in 1974, is the first novel by Native American author James Welch. This unsettling novel tells the story of a young Native American man who takes a metaphorical journey home to his family and his culture. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 2012.

The novel is told from the perspective of a nameless 32-year-old man. The narrator, like Welch, has mixed Blackfoot and A’aninin Indian heritage. It is set in the summer, sometime in the 1960s, and takes place on a cattle ranch in the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.

The reservation, which is home to more than 5,000 people, is one of the reservations where the author lived as a child. In the vast emptiness of Montana, the reservation sits 20 miles north of the Missouri River and 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Welch offers a realistic depiction of life on a reservation in Montana.

Part One begins with the narrator getting into a bar fight with a white man and then coming home drunk. He discovers that his girlfriend Agnes, a Cree Indian, has left,taking his gun and his electric razor. Agnes had been living with him, his mother, and his grandmother.

The narrator’s mother, Teresa, and Lame Bull get married a few days later while on a three-day trip to Malta. Lame Bull, who is 47-years old, is eight years younger than his new bride. Teresa’s ranch is on some of the best land on the reservation. Lame Bull enjoys his new life as a prosperous rancher.

Lame Bull later helps the narrator to search for Agnes, by giving him a ride to Dodson. From Dodson, he takes the bus fifty miles to Malta. Instead of Agnes, the narrator finds her brother Dougie. Dougie convinces the narrator to rob a white man who is passed out at the bar. The same evening, the narrator meets a New Yorker, who is out west to go fishing, in a bar. He also meets a woman working at the bar, who used to work as a dancer. She joins the drunken narrator in his hotel room.

At the start of Part Two, we find the narrator riding to visit Yellow Calf, on his horse Bird. Yellow Calf is an older blind man. As they chat over coffee, the two men agree that the world is “cockeyed.”

While continuing his search for Agnes in Havre, the narrator bumps into the New Yorker he met in Malta.  The man from New York is paranoid that an old man across the bar is listening to them. When the old man suddenly falls, face first into his bowl of oatmeal, they realize he was dead.

The New Yorker invites the narrator to the Legion Club to talk in a more private setting. While there, the man from New York plays punch board and wins both chocolate and a teddy bear. The man from New York needs to travel to Calgary, Canada to escape the FBI. He promises the narrator his car, an old Ford Falcon if he will go with him to Calgary. They plan to leave at midnight.

While in the car with the New Yorker, the narrator spies Agnes and Dougie in the street. He tries to talk to Agnes but gets beaten up by Dougie and his friends. Left with a broken tooth, he gets help from a woman named Marlene who buys him whiskey at a bar. While in the bar, he sees the New Yorker get arrested and taken away by the police. After spending the night with Marlene, the narrator leaves Havre.

In Part Three, the narrator hitchhikes home. When he returns to his house, he learns that his has grandmother passed away. He, Teresa and Lame Bull dig a grave for her the next day. After digging the grave, he visits Yellow Calf again.

The death of his grandmother causes him to flashback to the death of his brother, Moses, twenty years earlier. When the narrator was 12-years-old, his 14-year old brother was hit by a car. The boys were gathering cattle by horseback in the winter. As they were taking the herd across the highway, Moses chased a calf which broke loose, but was killed by a car. During the incident, the narrator smashed his knee, an injury which still has not fully healed.

In Part Four, Yellow Calf tells the narrator about his grandmother as a younger woman. His grandmother was married to Standing Bear, a Blackfeet Indian who was killed during a battle with the A’aninin tribe. His grandmother was shunned by the Blackfeet tribe. Yellow Calf helped her to survive by bringing her food. The narrator had always thought that his grandfather was a man of mixed race named Doagie. Yellow Calf and his grandmother had an affair. The narrator realizes that Yellow Calf is, in fact, his grandfather.

In the epilogue, the narrator buries his grandmother and begins to think of his future. He hopes to marry Agnes.

Native American novelist and poet James Welch was born in Browning, Montana in 1940, to a father from the Blackfeet tribe and a mother of the A’aninin tribe. He attended school on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations. He later studied creative writing at the University of Montana, His novel Fools Crow (1986) won several literary awards.  A founding author of the Native American Renaissance, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 1997. He died in 2003.