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Winter Counts

Review

Winter Counts

David Heska Wanbli Weiden has given us a remarkable debut novel with the publication of WINTER COUNTS. This Native noir gem introduces an interesting and complex protagonist in Virgil Wounded Horse, who refuses to conform to the expectations of what is and what is not a 21st-century Native American. Add a right-now, real-world problem as an anchor for the plot, and the result is a one-sit read that will leave you wanting more.

Virgil Wounded Horse is a self-styled enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Due to large and quite frankly inexcusable gaps in jurisdiction between federal law enforcement and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are any number of “minor” offenses that go unrecognized and escape justice. Virgil fills that gap memorably, effectively and violently. Things get close to him when heroin starts showing up on the reservation from an unknown source. Worse, his orphaned teenaged nephew Nathan gets into the mix when he overdoses, almost fatally.

"...a one-sit read that will leave you wanting more.... I may be expecting a lot on the basis of WINTER COUNTS...but Weiden is more than capable of exceeding my hopes."

That immediately puts Virgil, accompanied by his ex-girlfriend, Marie Short Bear, on the road to Denver, where an Indian with a bad prior history with Virgil has hooked up with a drug-dealing gang. They can’t locate him but do find trouble when Nathan, while still recuperating from the overdose, is arrested for possession after his school locker is found to have enough street drugs to put him away for years on a federal rap. A deal is put together with the assistance of a veteran criminal lawyer, and Virgil has deep regrets about letting his nephew get involved. However, he has little choice, given the potential sentence that Nathan faces, even as he vehemently denies that he ever had drugs in his locker.

While attempting to manage Nathan’s situation, Virgil and Marie also discover a potential problem for the reservation involving embezzlement of federal funds, which in turn later dovetail back to their primary problem: drug dealing on Rosebud and how it relates to Nathan. Everything goes wrong before it goes right; in the end, though, not everything goes right either.

Weiden saves plenty of surprises and the majority of the violence for the final quarter of the book. He does an exceptional job of matter-of-factly describing the cringe-inducing poverty rampant on the reservation, which may well (and should) make readers appreciative of their own situation, however dire it might seem. Weiden also treats his audience like grown-ups, tossing out Indian terms in the vernacular so that one might spend some time digging up interpretive meanings of individual words, as well as using online slang dictionaries. For example, you will discover what an “apple” and an “Oreo” have in common (Oreos, of course, taste better and come in more flavors).

Immersing a reader in unfamiliar terms isn’t a bad thing, but it might break the reading flow for some. A separate glossary included in the next installment of the series might be helpful. And, yes, I am hoping that there will be a book two and more beyond that. I made a small list of potential subjects for future Virgil novels --- not that Weiden needs me or anyone else for help --- which includes the effects of casinos on reservations; the acquisition of property into Indian trusts; and the reprehensible failure to investigate or even keep track of the disappearance of Native women on the United States-Canadian border, a state of affairs that has been ongoing for centuries.

I may be expecting a lot on the basis of WINTER COUNTS (and that term is memorably explained within the covers), but Weiden is more than capable of exceeding my hopes.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 28, 2020

Winter Counts
by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062968947
  • ISBN-13: 9780062968944