Part I: The Longhair
House Made of Dawn begins with the protagonist, Abel, returning to his reservation in New Mexico after fighting in World War II. The war has left him emotionally devastated and he arrives too drunk to recognize his grandfather, Francisco. Now an old man with a lame leg, Francisco had earlier been a respected hunter and participant in the village’s religious ceremonies. He raised Abel after the death of Abel’s mother and older brother, Vidal. Francisco instilled in Abel a sense of native traditions and values, but the war and other events severed Abel’s connections to that world of spiritual and physical wholeness and connectedness to the land and its people, a world known as a “house made of dawn.”
After arriving in the village, Abel attains a job through Father Olguin chopping wood for Angela St. John, a rich white woman who is visiting the area to bathe in the mineral waters. Angela seduces Abel to distract herself from her own unhappiness, but also because she senses an animal-like quality in Abel. She promises to help him leave the reservation to find better means of employment. Possibly as a result of this affair, Abel realizes that his return to the reservation has been unsuccessful. He no longer feels at home and he is confused. His turmoil becomes clearer when he is beaten in a game of horsemanship by a local albino Indian named Juan Reyes, described as “the white man.” Deciding Juan is a witch, Abel stabs him to death outside of a bar. Abel is then found guilty of murder and sent to jail.
Part II: The Priest of the Sun
Part II takes place in Los Angeles, California six and a half years later. Abel has been released from prison and unites with a local group of Indians. The leader of the group, Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, Priest of the Sun, teases Abel as a “longhair” who is unable to assimilate to the demands of the modern world. However, Abel befriends a man named Ben Benally from a reservation in New Mexico and develops an intimate relationship with Milly, a kind, blonde social worker. However, his overall situation has not improved and Abel ends up drunk on the beach with his hands, head, and upper body beaten and broken. Memories run through his mind of the reservation, the war, jail, and Milly. Abel eventually finds the strength to pick himself up and he stumbles across town to the apartment he shares with Ben.
Part III: The Night Chanter
Ben puts Abel on a train back to the reservation and narrates what has happened to Abel in Los Angeles. Life had not been easy for Abel in the city. First, he was ridiculed by Reverend Tosamah during a poker game with the Indian group. Abel is too drunk to fight back. He remains drunk for the next two days and misses work. When he returns to his job, the boss harasses him and Abel quits. A downward spiral begins and Abel continues to get drunk every day, borrow money from Ben and Milly, and laze around the apartment. Fed up with Abel’s behavior, Ben throws him out of the apartment. Abel then seeks revenge on Martinez, a corrupt policeman who robbed Ben one night and hit Abel across the knuckles with his big stick. Abel finds Martinez and is almost beaten to death. While Abel is in the hospital recovering, Ben calls Angela who visits him and revives his spirit, just as he helped revive her spirit years ago, by reciting a story about a bear and a maiden which incidentally matches an old Navajo myth.
Part IV: The Dawn Runner
Abel returns to the reservation in New Mexico to take care of his grandfather, who is dying. His grandfather tells him the stories from his youth and stresses the importance of staying connected to his people’s traditions. When the time comes, Abel dresses his grandfather for burial and smears his own body with ashes. As the dawn breaks, Abel begins to run. He is participating in a ritual his grandfather told him about—the race of the dead. As he runs, Abel begins to sing for himself and Francisco. He is coming back to his people and his place in the world.
Abel – … a young Native American man… grew up in Walatowa, New Mexico, under the care of his grandfather, Francisco … Abel has just returned from war…he is often drunk.
Francisco – Abel’s grandfather… a farmer, remembers how different life for the area’s Indians in 1945 is from how life used to be years ago. Francisco raised Abel and his brother, Vidal, the way his ancestors raised him, telling them the stories of his tribe and the stories of the land around Walatowa.
Ben Benally – A Navajo, lives in Los Angeles… does his best to help Abel adjust to city life in Los Angeles when he first meets him on the job at the factory. The novel’s third section, “The Night Chanter,” is written primarily from Benally’s point of view… aware of his Indian heritage but aspires to many of the amenities of the modern American lifestyle.
buy the book: House Made of Dawn