The action of House Made of Dawn takes place between July 20, 1945, and February 28, 1952. The narration comprises an undated prologue and four dated sections set in the pueblo of Walatowa (Jemez), New Mexico (prologue and sections 1 and 4) and the Los Angeles area (sections 2 and 3).
After a brief prologue describing a man named Abel, who is running in the Southwestern countryside, the story proper opens on July 20, 1945, when Abel, an orphan raised by his traditionalist grandfather, Francisco, returns to Walatowa after serving in World War II. Alienated and disorganized by war experiences (and also, it is suggested, by the early loss of mother and brother and from bouts of malaise), Abel is unable to make a meaningful reintegration into the life of the village.
He takes a temporary job cutting wood for Angela St. John, a troubled, sensuous woman who is visiting the area to undertake mineral bath treatments for some sort of chronic fatigue; she is pregnant. Abel has a brief affair with Angela. He also participates in a village festival and is singled out by a strange, ominous-appearing albino man. Meanwhile, the omniscient narration follows a parallel line with the village priest, Father Olguin, as he studies the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolás, and makes an awkward approach to Angela.
On August 1, in a strange, almost ritualistic encounter, Abel stabs the albino to death in a cornfield. This section of the story ends the next day, with Francisco again alone, hoeing in his fields.
The two chapters of the second section are dated January 27 and 28, 1952. This portion of the story takes place in Los Angeles and centers on the character of John Big Bluff Tosamah, who is a Kiowa, a storefront preacher, and a priest of the peyote religion. The chapter for January 27 contains the first of two sermons by Tosamah, a long discourse on a verse from the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word." Tosamah maintains that language has been debased by white people and its power lost or corrupted. At the time that Tosamah is giving this sermon, Abel appears to be lying fifteen miles away, barely conscious after having suffered a terrible beating that has mangled his hands.
The omniscient narrator moves back and forth in time, interspersing fragmentary memories of Abel's past with awareness of his pain-wracked body; he fleetingly recalls filling out forms in prison and, afterwards, meeting an earnest social worker named Milly (with whom he has an affair); there are fragments from his time in prison and testimony at his trial by Father Olguin and by one of his buddies in the army. This chapter also contains a depiction of a peyote ceremony and introduces Ben Benally, who will play a significant part in Abel's eventual healing.
The January 28 chapter is composed almost entirely of Tosamah's second sermon. This is a passage previously published in an essay in Ramparts magazine and later in The Way To Rainy Mountain, in which Momaday meditates on his Kiowa grandmother's life and the history and passing of the magnificent Kiowa culture.
The third section of the novel is dated February 20, 1952, and is narrated by Ben Benally, a Navajo relocated to urban Los Angeles. Benally's rambling narration includes references to more of Abel's life in Los Angeles — his job at a box-stapling factory, his encounters with a sadistic policeman named Martinez, his participation in the peyote services, and socializing with Milly. Benally also recollects the recent encounter with Angela St. John, who visited Abel in the hospital when he was recovering from the brutal beating that left his hands broken. Angela, now the mother of a son, told Abel a story with a heroic theme, intimating that he reminded her of the hero. Benally also recollects going with Abel to a "49" party in the hills outside the city on the night before Abel was to leave; Benally recalls that at this time, as previously, Abel sang traditional songs from Navajo healing ceremonies, including the verses beginning "House Made of Dawn" from the Night Chant.
The fourth section of House Made of Dawn is very brief, containing only two chapters, dated February 27 and February 28, 1952. Abel returns to Walatowa in time to care for his dying grandfather and perform the appropriate burial rituals. Having seen to this duty, he begins a ceremonial run into the dawn. The novel has moved in a circle, returning to the event depicted in the prologue.