Book Review: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

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Momaday’s novel centers around the idea that life is a journey, and the challenge for the protagonist, Abel, is to understand the purpose of the journey and its destination. The symbol of the circle is used to represent Abel’s life, a concept that holds great significance in Kiowa tradition.

The circle represents the cyclical nature of life, where we come from nature and return to it, similar to the “dust to dust” concept in other mythologies. The Kiowas also view the seasons as a circle, with each time of the year dominated by different nature spirits. The journey of the sun is also important to the Kiowas, as well as to other agricultural societies.

Momaday is primarily interested in the circle of Abel’s life after returning from the war. Instead of focusing on the war experience, Momaday explores the struggle of Abel’s soul. The majority of the book takes place internally, through flashbacks, memories, daydreams, and hallucinations.

Abel’s internal struggle began before he arrived at the bus stop in a stupor. Throughout the book, Abel travels from Walatowa to Los Angeles and back, with people being the key stops along the way. Francisco appears at both the beginning and the end of the book, providing a connection to tradition for Abel. Ben balances ancient tradition and modern reality, guiding Abel on his path towards healing.

If you’re still unsure about reading this book, this review provides a good overview of the book’s themes and storyline, so you can make an informed decision.

Plot Summary


A lone runner, Abel, crosses the plain. His opening word, Dypaloh, is a Jemez Pueblo term meaning something like “thus it begins” and is typically used to open stories in the Jemez tradition. The run itself is a ceremonial act and repeats at the end of the novel as Abel’s life is seen as a journey forming a circle.

Part 1, The Longhair: Walatowa, Canon De San Diego, 1945

The “Longhair” of this section probably is Francisco, Abel’s grandfather. The term Longhair refers to any traditional Indian male who grows his hair long in the old custom. Although Francisco is a Christian and a sacristan to the Catholic priest, Father Olguin, he is a cultural conservative and wears his hair long.

July 20 

Each of the chapters in the novel takes place on a specific date, which is the title of the chapter. This first is the day when Abel returns from service in World War II. Driving a horse-drawn wagon, the Kiowa grandfather hums a traditional song and reflects on a ceremonial race that he himself ran as a youth. When he meets Abel at the bus stop, he finds that the returning soldier is reeling drunk and does not even know him. The narrator indicates that Abel is sick in spirit as well as physically.

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July 21 

After describing how Abel has slept off his stupor, the narrator presents six significant events from Abel’s earlier life. Among the events is the significant story of the Eagle Watchers Society, which Abel joins on a journey to capture live eagles for prayer plumes. 

Abel first must catch or kill rabbits to use as bait for the eagle. When he succeeds, he feels regret at the rabbits’ loss. Abel manages to catch a fine young eagle in her prime. Only one other man has managed to catch an eagle, and it is an aged bird. 

The hunters ask this bird’s forgiveness and set it free. As the other men are eating, Abel steals away to see his bird. Surprisingly, Abel is so disturbed by the sight of the hooded eagle that he strangles it. At first, this seems self-contradictory, a paradox. 

If Abel can kill the bird, rather than set it free, perhaps his spirit is already confused. The narrator then reveals that Abel suffers from loss of memory regarding recent events in the war. He experiences some flashbacks to the horrors of battle.

July 24 

At Father Olguin’s suggestion, Abel has taken a job cutting wood for Angela St. John. Encouraged by her physician husband, Angela has come to Walatowa to enjoy the healing powers of the mineral waters. 

She is in the early stages of pregnancy. However, none of this seems to dim her sexual attraction to the sensual vision of Abel chopping wood. She is attracted by animal lust as well as a stoic focus that she notices in native men. In somewhat racist terms, thinking of Abel as a “wooden Indian,” she fantasizes about a sexual encounter.

July 25 

Father Olguin, who feels a distance between himself and the villagers, contributes a folktale about Santiago. A mysterious albino man, whose name is Juan Reyes Fragua, tops Abel in a contest and literally beats the protagonist with a rooster until the bird is dead. Angela observes most of this and is emotionally drained; she compares the feeling to her first sexual experience. 

The narrator looks into Father Olguin’s struggle and the solace he finds in a diary of a predecessor, a priest named Fray Nicolas, exploring the predecessor’s similar situation in the 1870s and 1880s.

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July 28, August 1, and August 2 

The narrator shifts the point of view to offer insight into the beauties of the landscape, the ancient rights of the indigenous people established over 25,000 years, the psychic struggles of Abel, and the continuing desires of Angela. Angela’s plan to seduce Abel is preempted, but she and Abel do eventually make love. 

Father Olguin reflects on his isolation; he feels laughable. In a crucial dramatic encounter, Abel and the albino man meet at Paco’s bar, engage in intense conversation, then exit to a vacant lot where Abel kills the albino by stabbing him repeatedly with a knife. The apparent murder is described as if it were a macabre, ritualistic dance.

Part 2, The Priest of The Sun: Los Angeles, 1952 

The “Priest of the Sun” is John Big Bluff Tosamah, a peyote priest who serves a group of displaced natives living in central Los Angeles. 

Tosamah conducts a peyote ritual, a kind of communion, and delivers a sermon based on the biblical phrase “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). Despite his interest in peyote, Tosamah’s link with the sun suggests an older Kiowa tradition of the sun dance and the legendary figure Tai-me, who was a gift from the sun to  the Kiowas.

January 26 

Momaday introduces Tosamah as shaggy and catlike with a mixture of pride and pain. Very early, Tosamah presents his text in Latin, In principio erat Verbum (In the beginning was the Word). 

The sermon is in Tosamah’s voice, a first-person speech mixing erudition with street language. The priest launches into a long monologue on the power of language, one of the central themes of the novel. Tosamah condemns John and all his Christian followers for corrupting the language, abusing it through excessive use. 

Truth is profoundly simple according to the peyote priest. John, he says, should have stopped after that first sentence; it said all that was necessary.

At the same time as the sermon, Abel is waking up on a beach in a drunken stupor. He has been severely beaten; his hands are broken. Momaday flashes back to Abel’s trial for the killing of the albino. 

Father Olguin testifies in Abel’s defense and tries to explain that Abel saw the albino as a force of evil, an element of witchcraft. The theme of language appears in the trial flashback as Abel anticipates that the court will dispose of him in the white man’s language of law, in words. Abel lapses into delirium and thinks of war and the social worker, Milly, who loves him.

The narrative voice then shifts back to Tosamah and a peyote ceremony reminiscent of Christian communion. The chapter ends with the focus shifting from Abel to the courtroom and back to Abel. His head clears enough for him to seek help.

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January 27 

This chapter consists entirely of Tosamah’s second sermon, which opens with another of Momaday’s appreciations of the beauty, power, and significance of nature, his “sense of place” and “land ethic.” Told in the first person, it recounts a return to the funeral of Tosamah’s grandmother, 

Aho. When she was born, he says, “the Kiowas were living the last great moment of their history.” By becoming expert horsemen, and joining in alliance with the Commanches, the Kiowas had controlled a vast expanse of open range for 100 years. Soon, however, the white man’s relentless cavalry would defeat them.

Tosamah cites the legend of the origin of Devil’s Tower, through which Momaday received his Kiowa name. Seven sisters were playing with their brother who was turned into a bear. Frightened, the sisters fled up a tree, which grew high into the sky. The tree petrified into Devil’s Tower, and the sisters became the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The section ends with the burial of Tosamah’s grandmother.

Part 3, The Night Center: Loss Angeles, 1952

Ben Benally, Abel’s best friend and mentor, is “the Night Chanter,” a Navajo chanter, or singer, trained to present one or more of the long, involved Navajo ceremonies designed to provide spiritual and physical healing. 

In the oral tradition of preliterate people, poets and singers learned vast amounts of material in order to entertain or conduct traditional ceremonies. The Night Chant is one such ceremony, designed to heal.

February 20 

Ben tells us that “he” left today. The “he” of the monologue is Ben’s best friend and spiritual comrade, Abel. Ben walked Abel to the train station from which Abel would travel back to Walatowa. 

Ben’s reverie includes numerous episodes, including some at Henry’s, a cheap Los Angeles bar frequented by Ben and Abel and other natives. There they sometimes saw a cruel policeman named Martinez. Like the albino whom Abel killed, Martinez is known as a culebra (snake).

The preceding night was significant for Ben and Abel who, with Tosamah and his disciple Crystobal Cruz, attended a festive Indian gathering in the hills east of the city. Ben softly sang a healing Navajo chant to Abel, the first words of which are “House made of dawn.” Ben later recalls his pastoral childhood, past times with Abel and Milly, the laughing eyes of a girl at a place called Cornfields, and a spirited horse he once owned. 

These pleasant recollections are interrupted by the memory of a brutal altercation with Martinez. The section ends with Ben’s recollection of his agreement with Abel to meet again someday.

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Part 4, The Dawn Runner: Walatowa, 1952

This last of the four sections returns to the imagery of the Prologue and brings the story full circle. Abel is the “Dawn Runner” of the title. The novel has been a story of his journey, which is also the story of his spiritual awakening and healing.

February 27 

Francisco is dying. The old man talks and sings, often incoherently, as he drifts in and out of a coma and as his thoughts seem to drift across his life. At one point, he mentions Mariano, a rival whom Francisco had defeated in a ceremonial dawn race in his youth, which Francisco had mentioned earlier in the novel. 

Francisco seems to have six dawn visions or recollections ranging from a love affair to an instructional outing with his grandsons. These memory dreams end with a recollection of a time when the old man, as a youth, had run foolishly and expended his stamina too soon. His shortness of breath indicates his last breaths of life.

February 28 

In this last chapter of the novel, Abel prepares his dead grandfather’s body in the traditional way: washing him, braiding his long hair, dressing the old man in his best clothes. Abel wakens Father Olguin to tell him to prepare to bury the grandfather. 

Abel then prepares for a ceremonial dawn run and joins a few men waiting for the sunrise. Suddenly the others are off, and the startled Abel tries to catch up. 

Out of condition, he falls behind and even falls in the snow. However, he rises and continues on, alone. There are no words or other contaminations. There is only a man running in coherent nature. The book ends with the traditional Jemez closing word, Otsedaba.


1. A Deep Connection with Native American Culture

N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn is a beautifully written novel that brings the reader closer to the Native American experience. As a voice of the Native American Renaissance, Momaday has an intimate understanding of various indigenous cultures, which he draws upon to create a rich and authentic narrative.

This familiarity allows him to build a bridge between the modern world and traditional Native American life, providing readers with a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by the novel’s protagonist, Abel, as he navigates two distinct worlds.

2. The Struggle of the Protagonist

Abel’s journey is a compelling exploration of the human condition, as he grapples with his identity, heritage, and the expectations placed upon him by his culture.

Throughout the novel, Abel faces alcoholism, emotional and physical pain, and the challenge of finding his place in both his traditional community and the modern white world. These struggles make Abel a relatable and unforgettable character, whose journey resonates with readers on a personal level.

3. The Eloquent and Evocative Writing Style

House Made of Dawn is written in a way that is both poetic and thought-provoking. Momaday’s use of language is vivid and evocative, creating an immersive experience for the reader.

The novel’s unique narrative structure, which weaves together various stories and settings, adds depth and complexity to Abel’s experiences. This style mirrors the way memories and experiences shape our identity, often coming together in a non-linear fashion to create an intricate tapestry of who we are.


1. Repetitive and Confusing Descriptions

While House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday is praised for its descriptive passages, some readers find these sections repetitive and confusing. This repetitiveness can make the book feel bogged down, and readers may struggle to understand the plot.

Some readers feel that Pulitzer Prize-winning books often lack clear storylines, and this novel is no exception. They argue that a literary book can still be engaging with elements like suspense, romance, and strong language, but House Made of Dawn seems to fall short in these aspects.

2. Lack of a Clear Storyline

Many readers have found House Made of Dawn to be dull due to its lack of a coherent storyline. The book’s disjointed narrative can make it difficult for readers to engage with the story and connect with the characters.

This has led some to give up on the book after only a few days, feeling that the investment in time is not worth it. While the novel has received positive reviews from some, others feel that they may have missed something or have simply read better stories.

3. Rambling and Difficult to Follow

House Made of Dawn has been criticized for its rambling nature and paragraphs that seem to go on forever. Readers have reported having a hard time concentrating on the story and often find themselves skimming through the lengthy paragraphs.

The novel’s non-linear structure and constant switching between myths, dreams, present, past, and different characters can leave readers feeling lost and frustrated.


House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday is a powerful tale of contemporary Navaho life in the American West, showcasing brilliant writing in a unique, pared-down epic style. The novel can be compared to the works of Cormac McCarthy, but it stands on its own as an authentically Native American voice. Readers familiar with and appreciative of The Odyssey and Ulysses will find value in the atmospheric and passionate narrative of this novel.

Momaday has crafted a masterpiece that delves into the tragic decline of Abel, a Native American orphan raised by his grandfather but ultimately torn away from his heritage by World War II and exposure to European culture. The story may not be easy to follow, but it is well worth the effort for the glimpses it provides into Abel’s world through flashbacks, vignettes, prayers, and reflections.

Momaday’s masterful use of language transports readers into a world as foreign to them as European culture is to Abel. This evocative, atmospheric novel is a testament to Momaday’s extraordinary talent and a unique exploration of the challenges faced by Native Americans in the modern world.

About The Author

Navarre Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. His step-grandfather, Pohd-lohk, gave him the Kiowa name Tsoai-talee (Rock-Tree Boy), which refers to a rock formation in Wyoming known as Devil’s Tower. 

Momaday writes nostalgically of that time and of his attachment to nature. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico (1958) and briefly attended Virginia Law School.

In 1975, Momaday was the first Fulbright lecturer in American literature to teach in the Soviet Union. His book House Made of Dawn received considerable critical acclaim and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Other works include fiction and poetry as well as an autobiographical memoir and essays. 

Momaday is a devoted and talented graphic artist and illustrator and an outspoken supporter of American Indian culture, art, and storytelling.

Buy The Book: House Made of Dawn

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