House Made of Dawn begins with a prologue that invokes the title image: "there was a house made of dawn, it was made of pollen and rain." Abel, the protagonist of the novel, is running through the rain at dawn near Walatowa, New Mexico, his body dwarfed by the winter sky and covered by the marks of burnt wood and ashes.
The farmers of Walatowa work all summer in the fields. Abel's grandfather, the elderly Francisco, is one such farmer. We find him driving a team of roan mares along a road thinking of a race he ran in his youth. The race is for good hunting and harvests, and all the young men of the tribe race along the wagon road at dawn. Francisco remembers how he had won the race by surpassing the speedy Mariano, who had been in the lead and was considered the best long distance runner in the area. Francisco is having this memory in 1945, on the day Abel is returning to the reservation after armed service in World War II. Around midday, the drunken Abel stumbles off the bus into his grandfather's arms.
The following day, Abel remembers his brother Vidal and his mother, both of whom died of a disease years ago, when Abel was young. Abel never knew his father, who was Navajo and was considered an outsider by the rest of the Indians at the reservation. Abel recalls his experiences as a member of the Eagle Watchers Society, a small group descended from immigrants of the Tanoan city of Bahkyula. The Tanoans, a forgotten tribe, suffered much persecution and hardship before they stumbled into Walatowa years ago. As a member of the Society, Abel hunts a large and vigorous eagle.
In another part of town Father Olguin receives a mysterious and beautiful woman, Angela St. John, a woman from Los Angeles who has just moved into the nearby Benevides house for rest and relaxation. Angela meets Father Olguin at the church and tells him she needs someone to chop firewood for the wood stove at the Benevides house. Father Olguin replies that he might know someone who can help her.
Abel agrees to chop Angela's wood for three dollars. He spends Tuesday afternoon at the Benevides house under the pale and thin woman's watchful gaze. Angela is fascinated by the way Abel throws his entire body into chopping wood, while she is only irritated by his reserve. Abel agrees that he will come back to chop the rest of the wood, but is ambiguous about what day he will do so. That evening, as Angela burns some of the wood, Father Olguin stops by and invites her to the feast of Santiago.
The saintly Santiago was known for his exploits on his ride southward into Mexico. Along his journey he accepted the hospitality of an old couple, who killed their only rooster to feed him. According to Father Olguin, Santiago had disguised himself as a peon and won a contest at the royal court. As his prize he wed one of the king's daughters. The king tried to have Santiago killed, only to be thwarted by the same rooster, which Santiago pulled out of his mouth whole and alive. The rooster gives Santiago a magic sword that he used to slay the king's assassins.