Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden front cover

Winter Counts are pictorial histories and calendars common among some Native American tribes. For Virgil Wounded Horse, of the Lakota Nation and living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Colorado, they represent one of the few comfortable memories of his tribal culture. He would make them with his sister Sybil to record important dates.

Sybil died three years ago in an car crash and her son, Nathan, has been living with Virgil since then. Nathan is 14 and finally beginning to settle down after losing his way after his mother died. Virgil is struggling to set a good example for his nephew. He is battling a drinking problem, which he is winning currently, but is drifting himself. He is conflicted about his own culture, and dismissive of the many tribal customs that form part of life on the reservation, yet chooses to remain living and working there.

Having been bullied at school, Virgil has grown into an intimidating adult. Lacking a trade, he hires out his fists, settling disputes and grudges for those denied justice from the authorities. The tribal police cannot investigate felonies and the FBI won’t touch anything less than murder. It leaves him a large gap to exploit. $100 for every loosened tooth is his rate. Our introduction to Virgil, in a classic hard boiled fashion, finds him chasing down a teacher who has raped a girl in his class.

Virgil is offered a job from tribal councilman Ben Short Bear. Kids on the rez have been overdosing on unusually strong heroin and Ben has heard a rumor that Rick Crow was behind it. He wants Virgil to set him straight. Virgil has history with both men. Ben is his ex-girlfriend Marie’s father and made it clear he never approved of the match. Rick was Virgil’s chief tormentor in high school.

Virgil has enough doubts about the job to turn it down initially. Rick is a bootlegger not a heroin dealer, and anyway is too small time for such an operation. Furthermore, although the rez has a synthetic opioid problem Virgil hasn’t heard of heroin being readily available. Events force his hand though when he finds Nathan unconscious after an overdose, and Virgil agrees to take the job on.

Winter Counts is equal parts hard boiled mystery, coming-of-age story and a fascinating picture of native American life and culture. Although it’s capably done, the mystery was the least interesting aspect of the novel for me. There is a surprisingly large amount of action and violence for a literary thriller like this, and the author knows how to keep the plot moving forward and ramp up the tension. The only slight disappointment in this aspect of the book is that the identity of the principal criminal is fairly easy to guess for the experienced crime fiction reader.

Its not just Nathan who has to grow up in Winter Counts, but principally Virgil. His investigation, and the responsibility for Nathan’s well being – particularly after he is arrested for drug possession – force him to get his act together. However, his most interesting changes are his emotional and spiritual growth, affected by Marie, who involves herself in his investigation initially against his wishes.

Finally, the depiction of First Nations culture and tradition is not mere window dressing but integral to the story and to the changes in Virgil, as well as illuminating and educational to readers. Virgil, the novel hypotheses, cannot be at peace until he is comfortable with his cultural heritage.

In a strong summer for thrillers, Winter Counts stands out.