Welch’s 1974 novel is a sad, lean, & powerful tale of a young Native American man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, drinking, fighting, lusting, wandering, searching for the identity of both himself and his people, whether he’s aware of that fact or not. There is an unblinking, unflinching honesty to the story that keeps its eye trained on the narrator and his life, in all it’s bitter emptiness.
I began to laugh, at first quietly, with neither bitterness nor humor. It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance. “You…you’re the one.” I laughed, as the secret unfolded itself. “The only one…you, her hunter…” And the wave behind my eyeballs broke.
Yellow Calf still looked off toward the east as though the wind could wash the wrinkles from his face.
It is not a bleak tale, really, but rather one of stark truth – one which we fear to look upon, yet cannot break away from. It is one that lodges firmly in your reader-mind not for its tragedy, but for its simple, honest reality. It is not “about” the plight of Native America – the life the narrator leads is one reached by choice, not just circumstance of birth. He has chosen his life of drink and wanderlust – and it is his choice whether to leave that life behind or not. Never did I sense the soapbox being shuffled into view from off stage – in fact, it never even occurred to me until I had finished, how devoid of politics and worldly events this story really is. It is sad and tragic for it’s simple facts – life, lust, death.
Yet, as with most tales, there is at least a glimmer of hope and redemption, ultimately. It’s not as if the narrator comes full circle, embraces his roots, and comes to realize who he really is – the steps are small and uncertain, but steps they are. The final two scenes – the cow in the mud and the funeral – are particulary poignant in illuminating this man’s path towards the next step in his life. He is not changed as we would hope, but changed he is – can it really be for the worse?
I was surprised at the power of this little book that I had never heard of and its powerful, honest portrayal of a man who is good and true, at his core, even if he himself has never noticed.