Summary and Analysis
Part 3: 20-Feb
This is the longest single chapter of the novel; it is also unique because it is narrated entirely by a first-person narrator: Ben Benally. The narration is executed as an internal monologue, a sometimes dreamlike reverie, aided by a bottle of wine, in which Benally's mind wanders from his recent memories of Abel, Tosamah, Milly, and Angela back to his childhood and youth on the reservation, and forward again to his life in Los Angeles.
Benally opens his monologue by saying that "he" left on this day, and the reader soon infers that Benally is talking about Abel. The two men had walked in the rain to the train station. Benally's reference to Abel's bandaged hands recalls the events of the previous month and Abel's awakening, described in the preceding section, on the beach after a severe beating, with his hands broken. Benally then goes on to recollect walking home from the train station in the rainy dark. His description of the traffic, lights, and motion of the urban landscape is simple but poetic. Throughout this section of the novel, the sound, smell, and feel of rain will signal Benally's thoughts returning to his immediate situation in Los Angeles — from his daydreams of life with Abel and, further back, his childhood and youth on the reservation. At this point, Benally's mind moves back to Abel and his worry that no one on the train will assist Abel, who is still badly wounded, bruised, and in pain from his beating. He admits to a feeling of loneliness among the strangers of the city.
Benally then describes entering Henry's, a bar typical of those found among Indian populations of big cities. Benally recalls that a vicious, hot-tempered policeman named Martinez sometimes comes into this bar. He also notes that people call Martinez a culebra; this epithet links the corrupt police officer with the nearly blind albino whom Abel had murdered, and who was reputed to be a culebra. Benally sees a friend, Manygoats, whom he asks for repayment of a loan; Benally would like to stay and tease Manygoats and the buxom woman whom he is with, but he has pretended to have a prior engagement and so he must go. Reluctantly leaving what he perceives as the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of the bar, he goes out once again into the rain.
Arriving at his lightless apartment, Benally discovers that he and Abel, distracted by trying to entice a pigeon into the room, had left the window open, and, now, rain has soaked into the floor. As the radiator heats up, Benally continues musing on Abel's departure. He misses Milly, who had brought some snacks for Abel to take with him, and his reminiscences turn to Milly's evolving relationship with Abel. At first, she had insisted on completing paperwork for the social services agency, but gradually, she had come simply to socialize with Benally and Abel.
Benally's thoughts then turn to the preceding night. He, Abel, Tosamah, and Cruz had gone out to a "49" in the hills east of the city. Everybody got a little drunk. Benally recalls the drum music, the singing, the dancing, and the general conviviality, as well as the beauty of the night sky and the sparsely inhabited terrain. He and Abel walked off apart from the group of revelers to talk about meeting again someday; both plan to return to their homelands and, eventually, prepare a special reunion.
By a process of association, Benally's train of thought moves from his anticipated reunion with Abel to memories of his home and to the kind of appreciation he tried to convey to Abel. He ruminates on how he had told Abel about the sacred chants of the Navajos, and, at the party, he had begun to sing very softly a song from a traditional ceremony.
At this point, there is inserted into the narration the text of a translation of a Navajo prayer. This translation is the source of the novel's title: The opening lines invoke a sacred place, the House Made of Dawn. The whole text reads like a stately, free-verse poem in English, and it is extremely rich in its allusions to many symbolic and sacred areas of Navajo life. The most important of these concepts is that of "beauty," which is expressed in the chorus-like finale of the text. "Beauty" is the frequent translation of a Navajo word that encompasses the meanings "long life," "motion through time," and "balance." "Beauty" represents the appropriate centering of the individual within an ordered universe. Benally represents himself as singing this song for Abel. This is both an appropriate gesture and a critical turning point in the plot, as the song is a healing song, sung to assist a person in becoming cured from some illness or injury, and Abel is finally commencing a process of healing from his deep-seated malaise.
Benally abruptly returns to his memories with a comment that Abel was unlucky, and he recalls that Tosamah had called Abel a "longhair." The next paragraphs then center on Tosamah, as Benally recalls a conversation in which Tosamah expressed his delight at the astonishment of non-Indian society when confronted by a person like Abel. Tosamah's words were filled with sarcasm at the so-called "civilized" society's inability to fathom a person of faith such as Abel. He imagined with relish the confusion and incomprehension surrounding Abel's defense in court, a defense based on Abel's belief that the man he killed was a witch. The last remarks that Benally recalls are a prophecy filled with bitterness towards Christianity, which for Tosamah represents the whole colonial enterprise.
Benally characterizes Tosamah's speech as crazy and asserts that the Kiowa does not understand Abel. It is different, he thinks, for people who grow up on the sparsely settled reservation than for those who have always lived in cities. In the vast spaces and harsh environment, all kinds of phenomena may be seen as supernatural, and it is easy to believe that a person who appears to have special attributes might be a witch.
Benally's memory returns to Abel's first day on the job in a factory, where the two of them worked on an assembly line stapling cartons. The day had gone successfully, in spite of Benally's apprehension that Abel would not tolerate the racist comments of coworkers and bosses. That evening, Benally, finding that the Relocation officer responsible for finding Abel housing had failed to do so, invited Abel to his apartment; this was the beginning of their friendship.
A brief section then summarizes Benally's relationship with Abel. Benally recalls especially his commonality with Abel: Both are from reservations, and Benally can therefore sense how lonely Abel must be. These two paragraphs form a transition to an extended reverie as Benally's mind travels back to his childhood.
In several pages set off typographically by italics, Benally recollects the peaceful, pastoral life of his childhood, surrounded by family, domestic animals, and the familiar closeness of life in the hogan. The style in these passages is fluid and affected, somewhat in the manner of Hemingway; it is characterized by strings of simple clauses joined by "and," conveying the sense of a vivid, almost hypnotic daydream. Benally's stream of thought carries him back to winter days in the hogan with snow outside, the smells of coffee, mutton cooking, and, outside, the clean crispness of the winter air. The prose also recaptures some of the wonder of childhood, when the entire world is open to the process of discovery.
Benally returns abruptly from his reverie of childhood to his more recent memories of Abel and the downward turn of Abel's life in Los Angeles. Besides the monotony and meaninglessness of his job, Abel had had to contend with bossy, intrusive social workers, probation officers, and supervisors at work. Benally recollects also his own feelings of helplessness at his inability to assist Abel. A downward spiral had ensued, with friction at work, irritability with friends, and finally loss of the job. There had been a falling out with Tosamah and Cruz, an episode of drunkenness, and harassment by his supervisor at work. Events culminated in Abel's walking off the job. A period of aimlessness and apathy had followed, a few jobs held for a few days, and frequent episodes of drunkenness.
According to Benally, the few good times during this period involved Milly — picnics at the beach and simple, friendly socializing. Thoughts of Milly lead to musings on her life — a hard, impoverished childhood and the sorrow of watching a kind, gentle father unable to wrest a living from his unproductive farm. These recollections of Milly begin to produce associations with a girl from Benally's youth, and italicized passages of stream-of-consciousness reverie begin to alternate with the more proximate memories of Milly and Abel.
After a brief italicized passage, a few sentences recalling a place called Cornfields and the laughing eyes of a girl, Benally remembers sitting on the beach with Milly and Abel. The three are enjoying a rare moment of hope and simple pleasure. Milly has emerged dripping and sparkling from the surf, and Abel is moved to tell a story about a horse. The story is a joke — the horse had deposited a dignified elder in the middle of a river — and the three collapse in laughter at the thought of the pompous man's discomfiture. As Benally recalls Milly's laughter, he reflects that she was beautiful when she laughed, and once again, the memory of the beautiful girl at Cornfields intrudes. That girl had worn beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry, and the association with Abel's story continues in her name, Pony.
After a brief note that Abel's sickness could not be cured by finding a job and becoming assimilated, a long italicized passage relates Benally's recollection of a horse he had acquired many years before, a vibrant, exquisite creature. Benally returns briefly at this point to his room in Los Angeles, remarking on the rain coming down and, in his mind, tracing Abel's journey across the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona towards his home in New Mexico. As he pictures Abel traveling through his homeland, his mind turns again to the horse and the girl at Cornfields years before.
Another long italicized passage returns to Benally's stream of consciousness and includes another translated text. The passage continues the recollection of the memorable horse and the young man's joy in such a magnificent, well-formed creature. Being able to ride such a horse, he recalls, made him feel like praying, and the text then reproduces a song celebrating a horse. This song, like the earlier one, is rich in allusions to the mythology, geography, religion, and philosophy of the Navajo. It is represented as being spoken by one of the heroes of Navajo myth, the son of Turquoise Woman, and it associates the horse with the fruitfulness of the earth (corn, rain, rainbows) and with all kinds of good things (jewels, plumes, sheep, and the wealth of horses themselves).
Benally's reverie continues, as he recalls riding his beautiful horse to his grandfather's place, and his grandfather's joy at seeing him return. A festival was taking place, and again Benally recreates in his imagination the sensory details of the scent of wood smoke, the far-off compelling rhythm of drums, and finally, the sight of the beautiful girl who eventually became his dancing partner. It is a deeply romantic memory, a recollection of the girl's beauty, her shyness at first, and the tentative relationship that begins with the stately dance. The memory is preserved perfectly; no subsequent reality has returned to correct it. In the last sentence of the italicized passage, Benally reminds himself that he never saw the girl again.
The transition from this compelling reverie is abrupt: Benally returns to a specific event of brutality. One night, Martinez, the sadistic policeman, confronted Benally and Abel in a dark alley as they were walking home from Henry's bar. After shaking down Benally for his remaining money, the officer turned to Abel, who was empty-handed. The officer then struck Abel's hands with his flashlight, not breaking them but causing severe swelling and bruising. Benally recalls Abel brooding on the episode, as he had brooded in resentment at Tosamah's mockery. Abel's sullenness and passive-aggressive withdrawal had increased from this point.
Benally remembers another episode from this period: a trip to the western edge of the city and Abel's sighting of Angela. The two men had gone to deliver some merchandise from the carton factory, and while Benally was unloading the truck, Abel caught sight of Angela going into a department store. When she came out, he pointed her out to Benally, who had not believed at the time that Abel would be acquainted with such a woman. However, Benally recalls, he found out later he had been wrong: The woman had come to visit Abel in the hospital.
At this point, Benally's rambling train of thought returns to the apartment, the rain, and the old woman called "old Carlozini," who lives in the apartment below. He recollects a singular encounter with the elderly woman; her pet, a small rodent-like animal that she called Vincenzo, had died, and she had approached Abel and Benally. Unable to determine exactly what they could do for her, the two men had simply listened sympathetically to her disorganized, grief-stricken babbling. The memory causes Benally to comment briefly on the loneliness and alienation of the city, and he reflects that this elderly woman's only friend had been her pet. After the single encounter, there was no further contact between the old woman and the two men who were her neighbors.
Once again, Benally refers to the rain that has been coming down during this long night of memory and, it will soon turn out, drinking. In his mind, he defends the policies of Relocation and Termination, policies that Tosamah condemns. In contradiction to the richness and poetic beauty of the memories that he has just evoked of the reservation and his young life there, he asserts that the city is better. At this point, Benally seems most naive, having bought into the materialistic promise of the so-called American dream, maintaining to himself that the ability to buy things is superior to the old ways of frugality and life close to the earth. Tosamah is wrong, he thinks, to criticize the efforts of the government to remove Indians from reservations and settle them in cities; he even begins to suspect that Tosamah may express his more outrageous ideas just to needle people. Suddenly his train of thought moves to the immediate situation, and he begins, it seems, to mutter to himself about the money that he had collected in the bar and how much he has left. It turns out that Benally had bought a bottle of wine, and his night-long daydream and increasingly random reveries have been facilitated by consumption of the bottle's contents.
At this point, Benally's recollections of Abel turn to the last part of a rapid downward spiral: Abel's refusal even to pretend to look for work, more frequent bouts of drinking, and finally the fatal evening when Abel left in anger to find and seek revenge against the culebra — Martinez. Abel was gone for three days, then turned up at the apartment building — drunk, bloody, covered with vomit, and nearly unconscious. Abel's hands, in particular, were mangled almost beyond hope of repair. Benally remembers calling an ambulance for him and being forced to answer meaningless and irrelevant questions put to him by a hospital employee. Finally permitted to see Abel, Benally had feared that Abel would not recover. He remembers calling Angela, attempting to explain Abel's trouble and asking for her help.
Two days later, Angela visited Abel in the hospital. She chatted about her son, the child she was carrying when she and Abel had been together in New Mexico. She told a story that she liked to tell her son, about a young man who was the child of a woman and a bear and who grew up to be a hero and savior of his people. Benally is shocked that Angela has invented a story so similar to one of the most powerful Navajo myths, the story of Changing Bear Maiden.
After Benally's introduction of the Navajo Bear Maiden story, the narration includes a passage set off typographically with slightly smaller print; the font is similar to that used for printing Father Olguin's tale of Santiago and the two poetic translations from ceremonials. This text is a summary, as if heard from Benally's grandfather, of the story of Changing Bear Maiden. This maiden is one of fourteen children, twelve brothers and two sisters. The sisters survive a massacre and marry two men who, unknown to them, have been transformed from Bear and Snake. The elder marries the bear man, and when she realizes what she has done, she runs away to a mountaintop, where she eventually encounters the Yeí bichai, the Holy People, or semi-divinities of the Navajo religion. She gives birth to two children, a daughter and a son; the son eventually becomes a man of high position and weds the elder daughter of a chief. However, after he sleeps with his wife's younger sister, she has a child that she abandons; this child is, in turn, found by the bear. Benally's retelling of the story is followed by the last four lines of the House Made of Dawn prayer, invoking beauty all around the speaker.
Finally, Benally returns once again to his memory of the previous night, of the farewell party and his and Abel's compact to remember each other and meet again. Singing, praying, friendship, and drinking figure in his last imaging of a time that will be good.
Bunker Hill Avenue a steep hill in downtown Los Angeles. At the time of the novel, a funicular called Angel's Flight ran from the top of the hill to the street below.
The Silver Dollar a fictional bar in Los Angeles.
culebra the Spanish word for snake.
stomp dance, squaw dance social dances in which men and women participate.
Beautyway and Night Chant two of the great Navajo ceremonials.
Tsegihi Dawn's House, or the House of Dawn. It has been identified as an abandoned cliff dwelling along the northern Rio Grande.
corpus delicti literally, in Latin, "the body of the crime."
Jesus scheme Tosamah's sarcastic reference to Christianity.
What's-His-Name v. United States a fictitious court case title Tosamah uses for an example of the inability of law to deal with Abel's reasoning.
Kayenta, Lukachukai towns on the Navajo reservation.
Relocation officer a federal employee working for the Indian Relocation program. The officer was supposed to help Indians coming from the reservation to get job training, housing, and job placement.
firewater slang for hard liquor.
Indian Center Most big cities have Indian Centers, which are meant to serve the needs of people relocated to urban areas from the reservation.
Santa Fe Indian School one of the federal boarding schools set up for Indian children.
Wide Ruins a place on the Navajo reservation.
hogan the traditional Navajo home — a large, many-sided log building with a domed roof.
"greasers" a racist word for Mexicans.
Santa Monica a beach city a few miles west of Los Angeles.
Cornfields a place on the Navajo reservation.
corn-blossom necklace also called squash-blossom; a necklace of many small beads shaped to represent blossoms, with a large central pendant.
najahe the central pendant of a squash-blossom necklace, a design apparently based on the pomegranate.
Chambers a place on the Navajo reservation.
ketoh a type of tobacco smoke.
Williams and Flagstaff towns in northern Arizona, on Abel's route home to New Mexico.
Painted Desert an area north and east of Flagstaff, on the Navajo reservation; it is celebrated for its panoramas of multicolored rock and sand.
Klagetoh a place on the Navajo reservation.
Turquoise Woman one of the First People who took part in the creation and early shaping of the Navajo world. Her counterpart is White Shell Woman.
Belted Mountain a shortened form of Black-Belted Mountain; it has been identified by some scholars as one of the four sacred mountains that anchor the four corners of the Navajo world.
flexible goods one of the organizing categories in Navajo thought and language. Flexible, or "soft," goods can include items like leather or fabric, while hard goods can be turquoise or obsidian; however, assignment to a category does not necessarily depend on physical properties of hardness or softness.
Little Holy Wind Wind is one of the most important of the sacred elements in the Navajo world — it is the sacred breath of life.
Nambe a pueblo in northern New Mexico.
Apaches Like the Navajos, the Apaches speak a language belonging to the Athabascan linguistic family.
fried bread leavened bread that is fried in lard; it is characteristic of Navajo cuisine.
concho a round disk hammered out of silver (silver dollars used to be used) and strung on a belt, bridle, or other article.
Termination a program initiated by the federal government in the 1950s designed eventually to eliminate (terminate) all Indian reservations and assimilate all Indians into the mainstream culture.
Esdzáshash nadle "The Woman Who Became a Bear" — that is, Changing Bear Maiden, the central figure of the myth of the Mountain Chant.
Dzil quigi a mountain in the Navajo homeland.
Calendar Stone In meso-American cultures, the so-called calendar stones are huge stone disks carved with emblems of the sacred animals and plants, indicating seasonal and recurrent events and allusions to mythical personages.
Kin tqel a place in the Navajo homeland.
Yeí bichai Holy People; semi-divine beings who are figures in myth and song; they are depicted in sand paintings and portrayed in some ceremonials by dancers in costume and paint.
Mountain Chant Like Beautyway and the Night Chant, it is one of the major ceremonials of Navajo religion.
Bear Maiden the heroine of an important Navajo myth.
Rio Mancos a river in the Four Corners area.