I’ve been meaning to read this book since seeing the author on a panel at Bloody Scotland last year. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden sounded like exactly my kind of novel, and my regular walks were the perfect opportunity to kickstart the ‘read’ by diving into the audiobook version, and the paperback release, which is tomorrow, the perfect timing. Here’s what it’s all about:
About the Book
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, there’s one person you can turn to.
Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way onto the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism becomes personal. Enlisting the help of his ex-girlfriend, he sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.
Following a lead to Denver, they find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity – but being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.
Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.
I have a lot to thank Bloody Scotland for. One thing is introducing me to so many fabulous authors, of which David Heska Wanbli Weiden is one. I saw him on a panel last year and was immediately drawn by the idea of a mystery set on a Native American Reservation. My university major was American Studies, and I loved combining American Literature with American History. I even spent a time studying in Flagstaff, AZ, which is just on the outside of the Navajo Reservation, so the whole premise of this book just appealed to me, that and the overwhelming recommendation of Craig Sisterson who did nothing but sing the novel’s, and author’s, praises. I am so glad I picked this up and that I both read and listened to tbe a book as the narration by Darrell Dennis was superb, the story sublime.
This is the story of Virgil, a ‘fixer’ on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, a part of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. Laws on the reservation do no work in the same way as they might outside of its borders, and sometimes justice is not always achieved in the most orthodox of ways. This is where Virgil steps in, getting a kind of justice for people who may otherwise be overlooked. He is tough, principled and fiercely loyal, especially to his friends and to his Nephew who he is raising alone after the death of his sister. He was a character I was drawn to immediately, even though we meet him in less than conventional circumstances. When he is approached by a tribal leader to look into a recent influx of drugs on tribal lands, he is initially reluctant, at least until the action comes a little too close to home. it becomes somewhat of a personal mission for Virgil, one which leads him and those he cares for into trouble and danger all while he pursues his special brand of justice.
This is a fine thriller, one which blends mystery and action with cutting social commentary and a good deal of history, highlighting not only the dark past of injustices inflicted on the Indigenous people, but the impact that it continues to have on their lives today. From the growing problem with drugs, to the impact of social deprivation and poverty that affects so many of the reservations people, this is a brilliant example of crime fiction mirroring true life. It pushes us to think long and hard about not just the present, but the past, offering an alternative point of view on things we have come to recognise as an integral part of American culture. It also take a long hard look at cultural identity, examining Virgil’s continued reluctance to accept his cultural heritage and how he pushes against the tribal ways, even as his nephew and former girlfriend, seek to become more a part of them. He is not ‘true full-blood’ Lakota, his biracial status being a cause of torment in his youth and another reason for his refusal to fully subscribe to the ways of his ancestors, one which informs his character in very key ways.
Talking in board terms, this is a brilliantly crafted thriller, a story of unscrupulous drug gangs preying on the weak and the young and not caring about how dangerous their drugs may be. It is the story of Virgil’s quest to find and to stop them, a quest driven by a personal desire for justice rather than a desire to help the wider community. And yet there is a real emotional heart to the story, and for every moment of anger there is a contrasting moment of quiet contemplation in which Virgil is prone to introspection and a real interrogation of who he is and who he wants to be. And this internal battle is reflected in the beautiful narrative. David Heska Wanbli Weiden skilfully creates a real sense of place, creating such vivid imagery that I could picture every scene, and capturing the moments of stillness as effectively as the pulse pounding action scenes of confrontation that litter the text. It hits all the perfect notes for me and had me longing for more by the time I turned the last page. thankfully, book two is due out next year and I for one cannot wait.
With beautiful, visually descriptive prose, action filled scenes, strong emotional undertones and a truly thought provoking narrative, this is most definitely recommended. a truly stunning read.
And I’m giving it one of these. Very well deserved it is too. Just wish I’d read the book sooner, but at least i’ve less time to wait for the next one.
About the Author
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota nation, is the author of the novel Winter Counts (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020), winner of the Anthony, Thriller, Barry, Lefty, Macavity, Spur, and Tillie Olsen Awards. The novel was also nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Shamus, Dashiell Hammett Prize, Colorado Book Award, High Plains, and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. Winter Counts was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an Indie Next pick, and was named a Best Book of 2020 by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Amazon, NPR, and ten other publications. The book was also selected as an Amazon Best Mystery and Thriller of the year, Best Noir Fiction and Best Debut of the Year as well as a Notable Selection for Best Crime Novel by CrimeReads. The novel was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club and was the November selection for the BuzzFeed Book Club.
Weiden is also the author of the children’s book Spotted Tail (Reycraft Books, 2019), winner of the 2020 Spur Award and finalist for the Colorado Book Award. He’s published work in the New York Times, Shenandoah, Yellow Medicine Review, Transmotion, and other magazines. He was a MacDowell Fellow, a Tin House Scholar, and was awarded the PEN/America Writing for Justice Fellowship. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and teaches writing for the MFA program at Regis University. He’s Professor of Native American Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and lives in Colorado with his family.