Novels for Students

Winter in the Blood

Winter In The Blood
James Welch
1974

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

Winter in the Blood (1974), the first novel by James Welch, is set on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, which is located forty miles south of the Canadian border and twenty miles north of the Missouri River. It is the fourth largest Indian reservation in Montana; more than five thousand people live there. The protagonist and narrator of the novel is a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian whose name is never revealed. He lives on a cattle ranch with his mother and stepfather, but he is an alienated individual who feels little affection for his family. The narrator seems to have no purpose or direction in life, and when he visits the small towns that border the reservation in search of his girlfriend, he gets drunk in bars and indulges in meaningless sex with women he picks up there. However, the narrator also has significant encounters with an old Indian named Yellow Calf, through which he learns more of his family heritage.

With its sharp poetic imagery and its realistic portrayal of life on a Montana reservation, Winter in the Blood is considered one of the most important works of the movement known as the Native American Renaissance. This refers to works published from the late-1960s onwards, when Native American writers began to become more prominent in the American literary landscape.

Author Biography

James Welch was born on November 18, 1940, on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana. His father, a welder, hospital administrator, and later rancher and farmer, was a Blackfeet Indian. His mother, who trained as a stenographer, was a member of the Gros Ventre tribe.

Welch was raised as a Catholic and attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations before moving with his family to Minneapolis. He graduated from high school in 1958 and briefly attended the University of Minnesota before returning to Montana. He graduated from the University of Montana in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts. He began writing poetry and entered the master of fine arts program, but he did not complete the degree. In 1968, he married Lois Monk, a university teacher. The following year, Welch was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This led to the publication of his first collection of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems (1971).

Riding the Earthboy 40: Poems was followed by the publication of Welch's first novel, Winter in the Blood, which he wrote between 1971 and 1973 and which was published in 1974. Critical reception of the novel was enthusiastic. Welch's second novel, The Death of Jim Loney (1979), also featured an alienated protagonist; it was about an alcoholic half-Indian, half-white man. Welch's third novel represented a departure from his previous work. Fools Crow (1986) was a historical novel that told the story of the Blackfeet Indians in the 1860s, culminating in the massacre on the Marias River in 1870. Fools Crow was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book award in 1987. Welch's fourth novel was The Indian Lawyer (1990), about an Indian attorney and congressional candidate who served on the Montana prison parole board (as did Welch). The attorney gets involved with the wife of a prisoner and is blackmailed, forcing him to return to practice law on the reservation.

For his next project, Welch collaborated with filmmaker Paul Stekler on the PBS documentary about the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, in which the Seventh Cavalry under General George Custer was annihilated by Sioux Indians. Welch then published his own account of the battle from an Indian point of view, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994).

Welch's final novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), was a historical novel about a Sioux Indian who as a child witnessed the battle of Little Bighorn. The protagonist of this novel joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured Europe, and was left behind in France recovering from an injury. Remaining in France, he had to make his way in an alien culture.

Welch was a Visiting professor at the University of Washington and Cornell University. In 1997, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.

Welch died on August 4, 2003, of a heart a tack, at the age of sixty-two.

Plot Summary

Part One

Winter in the Blood begins on an Indian reservation in Montana sometime in the 1960s. It is summer. The narrator, a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian, comes home after a drinking spree in town, where he got into a fight with a white man in a bar. When he arrives at the cattle ranch where he lives—with his mother, Teresa, and his grandmother—he finds that Agnes, his Cree girlfriend, who had been living with them for three weeks, has left. She has taken his gun and electric razor.

The narrator goes fishing and comes home with Teresa's friend, Lame Bull. After supper, he reads and listens to the radio with his grandmother. Lame Bull and Teresa go away for three days. When they return, they report that they got married in Malta, one of the small towns that border the reservation.

The next day, the narrator helps Lame Bull on the ranch. In conversation with Teresa, he recalls events from his childhood, such as the day he accidentally drowned five ducks he had won at a fair and the death of his father ten years ago, who froze to death returning home drunk one winter's night.

Lame Bull hires Raymond Long Knife to work on the ranch, but Raymond is dissatisfied with the pay. Lame Bull punches him on the nose and takes him back to town.

After a night in which the narrator recalls stories told by his grandmother and his dead brother, Lame Bull gives the narrator a ride to Dodson. The narrator then takes a bus to Malta, fifty miles from his home, to find Agnes, even though he claims she is not worth the trouble. In a bar, he meets Dougie, Agnes's brother. Dougie gets the narrator to help him rob a white man who is drunk and passed out.

At a bar in a hotel, the narrator meets a man from New York, who tells him he has left his wife and intended to fly to the Middle East but instead drove out west. He tells the narrator he wants to go fishing and insists on it even when he is told there are no fish in the river. The man talks to the barmaid, thinking he knows her. She tells the narrator that she used to be a dancer, and the man paid her to dance for him. He recognizes her and rushes out of the bar.

The narrator wakes up the next morning with a hangover. He goes to another bar and remembers that the barmaid was with him in his hotel room the previous night.

Part Two

The narrator rides his horse, Bird, to visit an old blind man, Yellow Calf, who lives in a shack three miles away. They drink coffee and Yellow Calf comments that the world is "cockeyed."

Lame Bull drives with Teresa and the narrator to Harlem, where the narrator gets talking to a woman named Malvina in a bar. He spends the night sleeping on the couch in Malvina's house. In the morning, she rejects his sexual advances and tells him to go away.

The narrator travels to Havre, since he has been told that Agnes is there. In a restaurant, he again encounters the man he met in Malta. The man thinks an old man at the bar is eavesdropping on them, and he wants the narrator to meet him at the Legion Club. After the man leaves, the old man's face plunges into his oatmeal. The narrator realizes he is dead.

At the Legion Club, the mysterious man wins several boxes of chocolate-covered cherries and a teddy bear at a punchboard. He says he is going to Canada to escape the FBI. He wants the narrator to accompany him by car to Calgary and then return alone with the car, which would be his to keep.

They walk through the streets of Havre, the narrator carrying the teddy bear. The man buys a hunting knife and a used Ford Falcon. As they drive downtown, the narrator spots Agnes standing in the street next to her brother.

The narrator and the mysterious man plan to start for Canada at midnight. That evening, the narrator goes out to walk, and a movie house showing old Westerns jogs his memory. He is taken back to his childhood. On a winter's day twenty years ago, when he was twelve and his brother Mose fourteen, their father sent them to bring the cows in. They rode out on horseback at dawn and, by lunchtime, had gathered over half of the seventy-eight cows and three bulls.

The narrative returns to the present. The narrator finds Agnes in a bar, but Dougie and his friends beat him up. The narrator ends up on the street with a broken tooth. A woman named Marlene helps him, and he goes back to a bar and has a whiskey. He then observes the man who wants to go to Canada being arrested and taken away in a police car. He meets Marlene again, and they spend the night together in a hotel. He leaves around mid-morning and decides he has had enough of Havre.

Part Three

The narrator hitchhikes a ride home with a man in an Oldsmobile. When he arrives home, no one is there, not even his grandmother. He assumes she must have died, which is confirmed when Teresa and Lame Bull return in the evening. They took the body to Harlem for preparation before burial. They drink a glass of wine. The next day, they dig her grave.

The narrative returns to the narrator's memories of herding the cows with Mose. It was getting dark, and they had to get the cows across the highway. A calf broke away, and the narrator's horse, Bird, gave chase. A car went past them, and hit Mose, killing him.

Back in the present, after the grave has been dug, the narrator rides to visit Yellow Calf.

Part Four

Yellow Calf talks about the narrator's grandmother, whom he knew when he was young. She was the youngest wife of Standing Bear, a Blackfeet. Yellow Calf recalls a terrible winter of starvation, when they had to run from the soldiers. Standing Bear was killed in battle with the Gros Ventre. The Blackfeet turned against the narrator's grandmother, blaming her for bringing them despair and death. She was left to fend for herself, surviving only because Yellow Calf brought her food. The narrator suddenly realizes that Yellow Calf is his grandfather, not Doagie, a man of mixed race, as he had formerly believed.

The narrator returns home, thinking about the affair between his grandmother and Yellow Calf and wondering how it could have remained hidden for so long.

Ferdinand Horn and his wife visit to offer their condolences. The narrator then struggles, with the help of Bird, to free a cow that is lying on its side in mud. The cow is freed, but the effort kills Bird.

Epilogue

The next day, Teresa, Lame Bull, and the narrator bury the old lady. The narrator's thoughts stray to his future. He will have to see a doctor about his injured knee. He also thinks he may start again with Agnes and perhaps even marry her.

Characters

Agnes

Agnes is a slender young Cree woman from Havre. She is the narrator's girlfriend, who lives with him and his family for three weeks. The narrator's grandmother hates her because she is Cree. Agnes walks out on the narrator, stealing his gun and electric razor. He meets her again in Havre, where she appears to live an aimless life, full of drinking and promiscuity.

Airplane Man

The unnamed man meets the narrator in Malta and then again in Havre. He comes from New York, where he left his wife, apparently taking some of her money. He says the FBI is looking for him. He intended to fly to the Middle East, but at the last minute tore up his plane ticket and drove out west. He persuades the narrator to accompany him by car to Canada, but his scheme fails when he is arrested in Havre.

Doagie

Doagie was a half-white drifter who lived with the narrator's grandmother. The narrator was told that Doagie was his grandfather, but it later transpires that this is not the case.

Dougie

Dougie is Agnes's brother. In Malta, he gets the narrator to help him rob a drunken white man. In Havre, Dougie and his friends beat the narrator up.

First Raise

First Raise was the narrator's father. He was good with machinery and could repair almost anything. He was often away from home, drinking in the bars in town, and Teresa describes him as a foolish man. First Raise's dream was to go on an illegal hunt for elks, but he never got to make the trip to Glacier National Park. One winter night ten years before the story begins, he was on his way home drunk after spending an evening in a bar in Dodson, when he fell down, passed out, and froze to death.

Grandmother

The narrator's Blackfeet grandmother lives with him, Teresa, and Lame Bull. She is old and blind and does not speak. She dies while the narrator is away in Havre and is buried on the family property. As a young woman, she was the wife of Standing Bear and was known for her beauty. After Standing Bear was killed in battle, she was scorned by the Blackfeet, except for Yellow Calf, who brought her the food that enabled her to survive a harsh winter. For years, the narrator believed that his grandmother remained alone for twenty-five years following the death of Standing Bear, until she began living with the drifter Doagie. The narrator later learns that his grandmother was close to Yellow Calf, and that Yellow Calf, not Doagie, is his grandfather.

Larue Henderson

Larue Henderson is an acquaintance of the narrator in Harlem. He manages an auto repair garage.

Ferdinand Horn

Ferdinand Horn is a friend of the narrator's family.

Lame Bull

Lame Bull is Teresa's friend who becomes her husband early in the novel. He is forty-seven years old, eight years younger than Teresa. Part of the reason he married Teresa was so he could own some of the best land in the valley. Being a prosperous cattleman makes him happy. He is efficient, practical, and crafty, although Teresa complains about his sloppy habits.

Raymond Long Knife

Raymond Long Knife is a white man who comes from a long line of cowboys, but he is lazy and does not like to work. Lame Bull employs him for a couple of days to help stack hay bales.

Malvina

Malvina is a woman the narrator meets in a bar in Harlem. He stays the night at her house.

Marlene

Marlene is the woman the narrator meets in Havre. They spend the night together in a hotel.

Mose

Mose was the narrator's elder brother. Mose was fourteen when he was killed by a car as the two boys were driving the cows home one early evening in winter. The brothers were close, and the narrator often remembers the enjoyable times he had with Mose.

The Narrator

The unnamed narrator is a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian who lives on a ranch with his mother Teresa and her husband Lame Bull. He lives an aimless, unfulfilling life, hanging around the bars in the small towns that border the reservation, getting drunk, picking up women, and getting into fights. The great tragedy in his life was the loss of his brother Mose when the narrator was twelve and Mose was fourteen. In the accident that killed Mose, the narrator smashed his knee, which has never fully recovered. Even though he is intelligent and capable, the narrator has never had much of a career. He worked in a rehabilitation clinic in Tacoma, Washington, for two years, although his mother claims that he was there for much less than that. Then, he spent most of his time in bars in Seattle. Although, during the course of the novel the narrator does nothing of note, he does gain some dignity and self-respect when he discovers that he is the grandson of Yellow Calf, not the half-breed Doagie.

Teresa

Teresa is the narrator's mother. She is a widow who marries Lame Bull. Although she is Indian, she speaks disparagingly of other Indians. She is also a Catholic. Teresa is a rather bitter woman who is not known for her generosity of spirit. The narrator says he never expected much from her and nor did anyone else. Teresa was disappointed in her first marriage. She refers to her late husband as a fool. Teresa is also disillusioned about her son. She regrets that he has not made anything of his life, and she criticizes him for his failure. She does not like having him hang around the ranch and tries to get him to start looking for a job.

Yellow Calf

Yellow Calf is an old blind man who lives in a shack three miles from the narrator's home. He lives a spartan life in tune with nature. After he tells the narrator about the severe winter the Blackfeet endured when he was a boy, and tells what he knows about the narrator's grandmother, the narrator realizes that Yellow Calf is his grandfather.

Themes

Alienation

The narrator is in an alienated state of mind, closed off from his own emotions. He does not feel affection for his family or for his girlfriend. Neither does he feel any other emotions for them, such as hatred or guilt. His emotional life is simply flat. In the first chapter, which sets the tone for the novel, he refers to this state of mind as "distance," and says it has been growing in him for years. Part of this distance can be explained by the narrator's loss of his father and brother, both long dead. He comments toward the end of the novel that these two were the only people he ever loved. Since then, it appears, he has been unable to find his way in life and connect with others. He lacks self-knowledge and a sense of identity, which may explain why he remains unnamed. He does not really know who he is, and as a result, his life lacks purpose and direction. He hangs around the ranch even though his mother would sooner he went out and looked for a job. …