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House Made of Dawn

N. Scott Momaday

The Night Chanter (Los Angeles, 1952)–The Dawn Runner (Walatowa, 1952)

The Priest of The Sun (Los Angeles, 1952)

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

The Night Chanter - February 20

This section is told from the point of view of Ben Benally, Abel's roommate in the apartment in Los Angeles. It is the day after Abel—badly beaten by unknown assailants and left in a ditch on the beach—has left Los Angeles to return to Walatowa. Ben remembers going up on a hill in the city with many Indians the night before. The group, which included Tosamah and Cristobal Cruz, started playing songs and dancing while Abel and Ben went off by themselves. Abel and Ben made a pact to meet sometime in the future, just the two of them and two horses among the hills, and to sing the song called "House Made of Dawn."

Ben gradually reveals the events of the prior weeks. We learn that Abel had been drinking far too much and finally quit working at the factory to spend all his time at bars. One evening, over a poker game at Tosamah's, Abel became so enraged with Tosamah that he tried to hit him. Abel was too drunk, however, and merely stumbled, provoking laughs from the others in the room.

From that point on, Abel descended further into drunkenness and poverty until he had a fight with Ben and left the apartment. Abel and Ben had been mugged by a corrupt local cop earlier that week, and Ben implies that Abel was perhaps intending some sort of revenge when he left the apartment. Regardless of whether or not Ben's guess is correct, Abel returns to the apartment three days later, crashing to the floor of the stairwell, badly beaten and seemingly close to death.

The Dawn Runner - February 27

Abel returns to the reservation to find his grandfather, Francisco, ill and on the verge of dying. Abel tends to his grandfather for days, and the narration switches to the inner thoughts of the stricken old man. When Francisco was younger he had tracked a bear for many miles through the forest. He finally caught up to the bear by a river, and shot. Smeared with the blood of the young bear, he entered the town to be greeted by the men with rifles, whom he gave strips of bear meat. Francisco's last memory is of taking Abel to the plain where the race of the dead takes place, telling him to listen to the dead run at dawn.

The Dawn Runner - February 28

Abel wakes up in the middle of the night sensing that Francisco has passed away. He immediately dresses the old man's body according to ceremonial tradition, and takes the body to the local mission, where he leaves it with Father Olguin. The Father does not understand why Abel insists on leaving the body before dawn break, until he finally has an epiphany that explains Abel's actions.

Abel leaves the mission and travels to the plain outside of Walatowa where the race of the dead takes place. It is just before dawn, and as the sun strikes the rim of the valley, the runners run with the dawn. Abel runs after them, stumbling in his exhaustion but using the song "House Made of Dawn" to carry him forward.

Analysis

In the section titled "The Night Chanter" we see Abel through the eyes of Ben Benally, his roommate and an Indian who has been successfully relocated in modern American society. What differentiates Abel from Ben is that Ben tries his best to fit in the society of Los Angeles, while Abel cannot or will not. When Abel first comes to Los Angeles and to the factory, it is Ben who shows him the ropes at work and gives him a place to stay. More important than Ben's care for Abel is the kinship the two men share. When Abel returns from the beach and goes to the hospital, he makes a hopeful promise that one day, both of them—rather than assimilating into the culture of the white man—will meet each other under the auspices of the essential context of their friendship. They will join each other on an open plain or in a lush valley, singing the song they both know from their upbringing—"The House Made of Dawn."

In the last section of the novel, "The Dawn Runner," the mystery of the prologue is revealed. An essential aspect of House Made of Dawn is that its narrative structure is circular. Unlike the rest of the chapters, which are clearly dated, the timeframe of the event we see occurring in the prologue is never specified. It is only at the end of the novel do we realize that the scene of Abel running in the prologue actually occurs at the end of the book's events, after the death of Francisco.

There are several possible ways to interpret Abel's dawn run. The first is in the context of one of Francisco's cherished memories, the time when he won the race in 1889. From what we can gather, the race no longer takes place every year in the way it once did. From the scene in which Francisco takes Abel to listen to the race in the valley, we sense that the race continues to be run by the spirits of the dead runners. Most of the descriptions of the runners imply that they make no sound unless one opens oneself to listening for them.

When Abel decides to run that morning, we know that he is probably incapable of running far, as he is still recovering from the severe injuries he sustained in Los Angeles. Regardless, he runs, and Momaday writes that Abel runs until he cannot feel any more pain. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Abel himself dies, but that seems unlikely. More likely is that running with the spirits of ancestors gives Abel the strength to overlook or transcend the battered physical condition of his body. Furthermore, driven by the song "House Made of Dawn," which is running in his head, he is able to overcome his physical limitations.

The run is also an initiation into another phase of Abel's life. He could be running with the notion that he would like to run with the spirit of his grandfather. He could also be running with the notion that he is taking on his grandfather's place in the town—a form of passing the torch from one runner to the other. When we compare both scenes of running—the prologue and the novel's closing pages—we see that the closing is written from the perspective of an ancient culture and tradition that continues on, while the prologue is written from the perspective of the other culture, the American, which can only see a desolate landscape with a lone man running through the dawn.

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