Winter Counts: A Novel

Image of Winter Counts: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 25, 2020
Reviewed by: 

“Winter Counts is a notable debut by an author who clearly has many important and insightful things to say about life on the reservation.”

As a boy, Virgil Wounded Horse was small and weak, a target for bullies on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Not anymore. A grown man, he works for hire on the reservation as an enforcer, a vigilante, someone who compensates with his fists for the fact that the federal government has jurisdiction over all felonies but chooses to investigate nothing below murder.

When heroin finds its way onto the reservation, Virgil is reluctant to become involved in something he believes is outside his mandate of individual justice for victims of violent crimes. However, when his nephew overdoses on a “free sample” and is subsequently arrested for intent to distribute narcotics, Virgil is forced into a personal quest to find the source of the drugs and to free his nephew of suspicion.

Winter Counts is a first novel by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. Weiden previously wrote a children’s book about the Lakota leader Spotted Tail, and he has also published short pieces in the New York Times, Shenandoah, Yellow Medicine Review, Criminal Class Review, and other magazines.

As a debut novelist, Weiden comes to us as a much-heralded up-and-coming figure in the American writing community. Holder of an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, a law degree from the University of Denver, and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, he’s a Tin House Scholar, a MacDowell Fellow, a Ragdale Foundation resident, and a recipient of the PEN/American Writing for Justice Fellowship. He’s currently a professor of Native American Studies and Political Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.


So what to expect, then, from the actual novel when you’re looking at it on the rack in the store or on its purchase-point web page? Should you or shouldn’t you?

In fact, Winter Counts is something of a tweener. It begins as hard-edged crime fiction as Virgil beats the crap out of someone who has it coming to him while taking a bit of punishment in return. It looks as though we’ve got ourselves another hard-boiled protagonist with the kind of edge fans of American noir can’t get enough of.

As the novel progresses, however, Weiden moves him into situations that seem more aligned with domestic suspense than hard-assed noir. Virgil reconnects with Marie, an ex-girlfriend, and when they troop off together to Denver to look for Rick, Virgil’s primary suspect in the heroin trade (a slug who happens to be another ex-boyfriend of Marie), Virgil’s character starts to get a bit soggy around the edges. They spend most of their time sight-seeing: checking out the tourist attractions, dining at recommended restaurants, and acting for all the world like a pair of former lovers trying to rekindle the flame.

Virgil can’t suppress his jealousy of Rick, and when they return to the reservation and Marie strikes up an acquaintance with a touring executive chef specializing in indigi-cultural food, Virgil becomes jealous of him as well. On it goes. Tough on the outside, soft on the inside, apparently.

As a result, while the author pitches his hero to us up front as a hard-edged leg breaker on a mission, his attempts to mix inter-personal suspense and love interest into the story end up making Virgil an annoyingly inconsistent character. Perhaps in part because the narrative is first-person and we get a lot of state-of-mind analysis from Virgil, he ends up fluctuating between an immature, half-formed person and a man focused on what needs to be done—a tweener who fails to nail down a solid identity in the story.

The strength of the novel, on the other hand, lies in his treatment of the Rosebud reservation setting and its attendant characters. When Virgil passes a medicine wheel mural with the text “YOU HAVE A CHOICE!” he wonders “if any of us really had a choice . . . or if we were forced by circumstances beyond our control into our own orbits, our own pathways.”

This observation touches on a central theme in the novel: the vulnerability of people on the reservation to outside forces and influences and the difficulty they face in the struggle to maintain the integrity of their way of life and their world view.

The novel has other strong moments as well. Visiting his sister’s grave, Virgil reflects that over time he’s discovered

“that sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good—it changes a little over time but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.”

Winter Counts is a notable debut by an author who clearly has many important and insightful things to say about life on the reservation. Once he makes up his mind what kind of crime fiction he wants to write and finds a way to remain consistent with his choice throughout, David Heska Wanbli Weiden will build an audience that won’t hesitate to grab his next one off the rack or click on “Buy Now” on the Web site.