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Winter in the Blood

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A contemporary classic from a major writer of the Native American renaissance — "Brilliant, brutal and, in my opinion, Welch's best work." —Tommy Orange, The Washington Post

During his life, James Welch came to be regarded as a master of American prose, and his first novel, Winter in the Blood, is one of his most enduring works. The narrator of this beautiful, often disquieting novel is a young Native American man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Sensitive and self-destructive, he searches for something that will bind him to the lands of his ancestors but is haunted by personal tragedy, the dissolution of his once proud heritage, and Montana's vast emptiness. Winter in the Blood is an evocative and unforgettable work of literature that will continue to move and inspire anyone who encounters it.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

ISBN-13: 9780143136194

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-23-2021

Pages: 160

Product Dimensions: 5.29(w) x 8.05(h) x 0.60(d)

Series: Penguin Vitae

James Welch was the author of the novels Winter in the Blood, Fools Crow, for which he received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an American Book Award, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, The Indian Lawyer, The Death of Jim Loney, and Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. He attended schools on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana, graduated from the University of Montana, where he studied writing with the late Richard Hugo, and served on the Montana State Board of Pardons.Bestselling author Louise Erdrich grew up in North Dakota and is of German and Turtle Mountain Chippewa descent. Her novels include Love Medicine and The Beet Queen.

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Part One


In the tall weeds of the borrow pit, I took a leak and watched the sorrel mare, her colt beside her, walk through burnt grass to the shady side of the log-and-mud cabin. It was called the Earthboy place, although no one by that name (or any other) had lived in it for twenty years. The roof had fallen in and the mud between the logs had fallen out in chunks, leaving a bare gray skeleton, home only to mice and insects. Tumbleweeds, stark as bone, rocked in a hot wind against the west wall. On the hill behind the cabin, a rectangle of barbed wire held the graves of all the Earthboys, except for a daughter who had married a man from Lodgepole. She could be anywhere, but the Earthboys were gone.

The fence hummed in the sun behind my back as I climbed up to the highway. My right eye was swollen up, but I couldn't remember how or why, just the white man, loose with his wife and buying drinks, his raging tongue a flame above the music and my eyes. She was wild, from Rocky Boy. He was white. He swore at his money, at her breasts, at my hair.

Coming home was not easy anymore. It was never a cinch, but it had become a torture. My throat ached, my bad knee ached and my head ached in the even heat.

The mare and her colt were out of sight behind the cabin. Beyond the graveyard and the prairie hills, the Little Rockies looked black and furry in the heat haze.

Coming home to a mother and an old lady who was my grandmother. And the girl who was thought to be my wife. But she didn't really count. For that matter none of them counted; not one meant anything to me. And for no reason. I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years.

It could have been the country, the burnt prairie beneath a blazing sun, the pale green of the Milk River valley, the milky waters of the river, the sagebrush and cottonwoods, the dry, cracked gumbo flats. The country had created a distance as deep as it was empty, and the people accepted and treated each other with distance.

But the distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon. And that was why I had no particular feelings toward my mother and grandmother. Or the girl who had come to live with me.

I dropped down on the other side of the highway, slid through the barbed-wire fence and began the last two miles home. My throat ached with a terrible thirst.


"She left three days ago, just after you went to town."

"It doesn't matter," I said.

"She took your gun and electric razor."

The room was bright. Although it was early afternoon, the kitchen light was burning.

"What did you expect me to do? I have your grandmother to look after, I have no strength, and she is young-Cree!"

"Don't worry," I said.

"At least get your gun back." My mother swept potato peels off the counter into a paper sack at her feet. "You know she'd sell it for a drink."

The gun, an old .30-30, had once been important to me. Like my father before me, I had killed plenty of deer with it, but I hadn't used it since the day I killed Buster Cutfinger's dog for no reason except that I was drunk and it was moving. That was four years ago.

I heard a clucking in the living room. The rocking chair squeaked twice and was silent.

"How is she?" I asked.

"Hot cereal and pudding-how would you expect her to be?"

"What, no radishes?"

My mother ignored me as she sliced the potatoes into thin wafers.

"Why don't we butcher one of those heifers? She could eat steak for the rest of her life and then some."

"She'll be gone soon enough without you rushing things. Here, put this on that eye-it'll draw out the poison." She handed me a slice of potato.

"How's Lame Bull?"

She stopped slicing. "What do you mean by that?"

"How's Lame Bull?"

"He'll be here this evening; you can find out then. Now get me another bucket of water."

"How's the water?" I asked.

"It'll do. It never rains anymore." She dumped the slices into a pan. "It never rains around here when you need it."

I thought how warm and flat the water would taste. No rain since mid-June and the tarred barrels under the eaves of the house were empty. The cistern would be low and the water silty.

A fly buzzed into the house as I opened the door. The yard was patched with weeds and foxtail, sagebrush beyond the fence. The earth crumbled into powder under my feet; beneath the sun which settled into afternoon heat over the slough, two pintail ducks beat frantically above the cottonwoods and out of sight. As I lowered the bucket into the cistern, a meadowlark sang from the shade behind the house. The rope was crusty in my hands. Twice I lifted and dropped the bucket, watching the water flow in over the lip until the bucket grew heavy enough to sink.

The girl was no matter. She was a Cree from Havre, scorned by the reservation people. I had brought her home with me three weeks ago. My mother thought we were married and treated her with politeness. My mother was a Catholic and sprinkled holy water in the corners of her house before lightning storms. She drank with the priest from Harlem, a round man with distant eyes, who refused to set foot on the reservation. He never buried Indians in their family graveyards; instead, he made them come to him, to his church, his saints and holy water, his feuding eyes. My mother drank with him in his shingle house beside the yellow plaster church. She thought I had married the girl and tried to welcome her, and the girl sat sullen in the living room across from the old lady, my grandmother, who filled her stone pipe with cuts of tobacco mixed with dried crushed chokecherries. She sat across from the girl, and the girl read movie magazines and imagined that she looked like Raquel Welch.

The old lady imagined that the girl was Cree and enemy and plotted ways to slit her throat. One day the flint striker would do; another day she favored the paring knife she kept hidden in her legging. Day after day, these two sat across from each other until the pile of movie magazines spread halfway across the room and the paring knife grew heavy in the old lady's eyes.


I slid down the riverbank behind the house. After a half-hour search in the heat of the granary, I had found a red and white spoon in my father's toolbox. The treble hook was rusty and the paint on the spoon flecked with rust. I cast across the water just short of the opposite bank. There was almost no current. As I retrieved the lure, three mallards whirred across my line of vision and were gone upriver.

The sugar beet factory up by Chinook had died seven years before. Everybody had thought the factory caused the river to be milky but the water never cleared. The white men from the fish department came in their green trucks and stocked the river with pike. They were enthusiastic and dumped thousands of pike of all sizes into the river. But the river ignored the fish and the fish ignored the river; they refused even to die there. They simply vanished. The white men made tests; they stuck electric rods into the water; they scraped muck from the bottom; they even collected bugs from the fields next to the river; they dumped other kinds of fish in the river. Nothing worked. The fish disappeared. Then the men from the fish department disappeared, and the Indians put away their new fishing poles. But every now and then, a report would trickle down the valley that someone, an irrigator perhaps, had seen an ash-colored swirl suck in a muskrat, and out would come the fishing gear. Nobody ever caught one of these swirls, but it was always worth a try.

I cast the spoon again, this time retrieving faster.

The toolbox had held my father's tools and it was said in those days that he could fix anything made of iron. He overhauled machinery in the fall. It was said that when the leaves turned, First Raise's yard was full of iron; when they fell, the yard was full of leaves. He drank with the white men of Dodson. Not a quiet man, he told them stories and made them laugh. He charged them plenty for fixing their machines. Twenty dollars to kick a baler awake-one dollar for the kick and nineteen for knowing where to kick. He made them laugh until the thirty-below morning ten years ago we found him sleeping in the borrow pit across from Earthboy's place.

He had had dreams. Every fall, before the first cold wind, he dreamed of taking elk in Glacier Park. He planned. He figured out the mileage and the time it would take him to reach the park, and the time it would take to kill an elk and drag it back across the boundary to his waiting pickup. He made a list of food and supplies. He inquired around, trying to find out what the penalty would be if they caught him. He wasn't crafty like Lame Bull or the white men of Dodson, so he had to know the penalty, almost as though the penalty would be the inevitable result of his hunt.

He never got caught because he never made the trip. The dream, the planning and preparation were all part of a ritual-something to be done when the haying was over and the cattle brought down from the hills. In the evening, as he oiled his .30-30, he explained that it was better to shoot a cow elk because the bulls were tough and stringy. He had everything figured out, but he never made the trip.

My lure caught a windfall trunk and the brittle nylon line snapped. A magpie squawked from deep in the woods on the other side of the river.


"Ho, you are fishing, I see. Any good bites?" Lame Bull skittered down the bank amid swirls of dust. He stopped just short of the water.

"I lost my lure," I said.

"You should try bacon," he said, watching my line float limp on the surface. "I know these fish."

It was getting on toward evening. A mosquito lit on Lame Bull's face. I brought in the line and tied it to the reel handle. The calf bawled in the corral. Its mother, an old roan with one wild eye, answered from somewhere in the bend of the horseshoe slough.

"You should try bacon. First you cook it, then dump the grease into the river. First cast, you'll catch a good one."

"Are the fish any good?" I asked.

"Muddy. The flesh is not firm. It's been a poor season." He swatted a cloud of dust from his rump. "I haven't seen such a poor year since the flood. Ask your mother. She'll tell you."

We climbed the bank and started for the house. I remembered the flood. Almost twelve years ago, the whole valley from Chinook on down was under water. We moved up to the agency and stayed in an empty garage. They gave us typhoid shots.

"You, of course, are too young."

"I was almost twenty," I said.

"Your old man tried to ride in from the highway but his horse was shy of water. You were not much more than a baby in Teresa's arms. His horse threw him about halfway in."

"I remember that. I was almost twenty."

"Ho." Lame Bull laughed. "You were not much more than a gleam in your old man's eye."

"His stirrup broke-that's how come the horse threw him. I saw his saddle. It was a weakness in the leather."


"He could outride you any day."


Lame Bull filled the width of the doorframe as he entered the kitchen. He wasn't tall, but broad as a bull from shoulders to butt.

"Ah, Teresa! Your son tells me you are ready to marry me."

"My son tells lies that would make a weasel think twice. He was cut from the same mold as you." Her voice was clear and bitter.

"But why not? We could make music in the sack. We could make those old sheets sing."

" talk as though my mother had no ears," Teresa said.

Two squeaks came from the living room.

"Old woman! How goes the rocking?" Lame Bull moved past my mother to the living room. "Do you make hay yet?"

The rocking chair squeaked again.

"She has gone to seed," I said. "There is no fertilizer in her bones."

"I seem to find myself surrounded by fools today." Teresa turned on the burner beneath the pan filled with potatoes. "Maybe one of you fools could bring yourself to feed that calf. He'll be bawling all night."

Evening now and the sky had changed to pink reflected off the high western clouds. A pheasant gabbled from a field to the south. A lone cock, he would be stepping from the wild rose along an irrigation ditch to the sweet alfalfa field, perhaps to graze with other cocks and hens, perhaps alone. It is difficult to tell what cocks will do when they grow old. They are like men, full of twists.

The calf was snugged against the fence, its head between the poles, sucking its mother.

"Hi! Get out of here, you bitch!"

She jumped straight back from the fence, skittered sideways a few feet, then stood, tensed. Her tongue hung a thread of saliva almost to the ground and the one wild eye, rimmed white, looked nowhere in particular.

"Don't you know we're trying to wean this fool?"

I moved slowly toward the calf, backing it into a corner where the horse shed met the corral fence, talking to it, holding out my hand. Before it could move I grabbed it by the ear and whirled around so that I could pin its shoulder against the fence. I slapped a mosquito from my face and the calf bawled; then it was silent.

Feeling the firmness of its thigh, I remembered how my brother, Mose, and I used to ride calves, holding them for each other, buckling on the old chaps we found hanging in the horse shed, then the tense "Turn him out!" and all hell busted loose. Hour after hour we rode calves until First Raise caught us.

Reading Group Guide


Winters are long in northern Montana. The vast landscape can seem sweet and beautiful to the inhabitants, though often overwhelming, even forbidding to outsiders. The occasional towns might be dingy Edward Hopper paintings: crowded local bars and cafés, used car lots. At first, the Indian reservations that occupy some of this land may seem an unlikely source of literary inspiration to urban readers. However, in the imagination of Montana writer and Blackfeet tribal member James Welch, this unfamiliar landscape becomes the backdrop for two unforgettable short novels of Native American life: Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, both of which take place on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north central Montana, home to the Gros Ventre tribe.

The first two novels by a man hailed as a leading figure in the Native American Renaissance, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney read like companion pieces, the first leavened by comedy and the second gazing unflinchingly into its tragic implications.

In Winter in the Blood, Welch tells the story of a nameless, aimless young man whose attempts to track down an absconding girlfriend lead him on an odyssey of beer-drenched encounters, one-night stands, and improbable mock intrigues. Only when the narrator seeks the counsel of an old, blind Indian named Yellow Calf, does he begin to grasp the truth of his origins and thus the deeper significance of his life.

Whereas the narrator of Winter in the Blood stumbles toward a sense of belonging and understanding, the road to self-acceptance is far more treacherous for the title character of Welch's second novel, The Death of Jim Loney. Rejected by his white father, unable to discover the whereabouts of his beautiful Indian mother, Loney falls prey to disturbing dreams and is haunted by visions of an ominous black bird. Through his mind, all too frequently befogged by whiskey and troubled memories, a verse from Isaiah continually resonates: "Turn away from the man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?" Despite his inner torment, Loney is a likeable young man who gains the sympathy of many of those around him. Still, he is somehow blocked from responding to their offers of friendship and love. He finds himself bound on an inward journey that may lead either to self-discovery or self-destruction.

In these two short novels, James Welch writes piercingly of the alienation that affects Native Americans more particularly than most modern Euro-Americans. As his characters struggle outwardly with cultural and economic dislocation, they yearn for purpose, for connections between their present circumstances and a meaningful tribal and/or familial past. Those who pick up a James Welch novel in hopes of understanding the lives of contemporary Native Americans will find what they seek, as well as universally applicable insights into the complexities of guilt, responsibility and regret. They will also glimpse degrees of courage and humor that are needed to survive in an often bleak modern world.


James Welch was born in Browning, Montana, in 1940 and was raised on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations. His father was Blackfeet, his mother Gros Ventre, each having Irish ancestors. After World War II, the family lived in Portland, Oregon; Sitka, Alaska; Spokane, Washington; Pickstown, South Dakota; and Minneapolis, settling in the mid-1960s in Harlem, Montana, just off the reservation. From an early age, Welch dreamed of becoming a writer. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Montana and continued his study of creative writing in the university's MFA program. Welch married Lois Monk, a professor of English and comparative literature in 1968. His first book of poetry, Riding the Earthboy 40, appeared in 1971 and was followed by a series of acclaimed novels. In addition to Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, Welch also published Fools Crow, a historical novel about a band of Blackfeet during the years of white encroachment following the Civil War; The Indian Lawyer, a novel inspired by Welch's ten-year service on the Montana State Board of Pardons; and The Heartsong of Charging Elk, about an Oglala Sioux who went to France with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Welch also coauthored with Paul Stekler the nonfiction work Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. This book described his experience working with Stekler on the script for their 1990 documentary,Last Stand at Little Bighorn. Popular in France, Welch was awarded a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1995. In addition to numerous workshops and conferences, Welch taught at both the University of Washington and Cornell University. He died of lung cancer in 2003 at his home in Missoula.


Q. Your husband once described himself as having started out as "an Indian who writes" but "becoming more and more of an Indian writer." What were his feelings about the fact that some readers and critics kept trying to see him as a representative of a people, rather than as a writer in a more universal sense?

No one likes to be pigeonholed. We sometimes joked about "my people" and "your people." Jim understood why people kept treating him like a representative but he always reminded them how diverse Indians were (cf. Alvin Josephy's 500 Nations, for example). He never stopped trying to get us to understand that Indians are people—in "the universal sense." Of course, many in his audiences had never met an Indian and used the chance to ask questions far afield from his writing. Jim never pretended to be an expert. Jim was increasingly comfortable in his mixed heritage, I think, even as he deepened his understanding of both sides.

Q. In your husband's writing, one finds a voice that is capable of great humor but is also adept in conveying the tragic side of life. What role did his sense of humor play in the writing of these novels?

Jim said that "humor alleviates the somber tone of an otherwise serious book." Humor and a tragic outlook are not, of course, necesssarily antithetical. (Sentimentality might be the antithesis to both.) Jim had great emotional reach, which is one of the reasons he turned to fiction. He wanted to paint a broad canvas. Indians generally have great big senses of humor that do not preclude a broad range of other profound emotions. I would even say that Jim had great emotional intelligence.

Q. Winter in the Blood has long been admired as a comic masterpiece, whereas The Death of Jim Loney is generally seen as a much darker, more brooding novel. What do you suppose caused your husband to adopt a more somber viewpoint in his second novel?

Who wants to be One Tune Charlie? It might be useful to remember that when Winter in the Blood came out, most Americans were unaccustomed to Indian humor. Perhaps it was the influence of the movies, the image of the stoic Indian, the apparent contradiction between their "natural primitive nobility"—or evil—and joking around. In Tucson, about 1975, I was the only person laughing in an audience of 125 mainly white college students as Jim read the bar scene about no fish in the river. They'd probably laugh now. Jim loved being caught up in the hilarity of Indian gatherings, while realizing that this impromptu teasing humor would be hard to convey to non-Indians in books.

About Loney, Jim had long been fascinated with a common reservation figure: the appealing young man who does well, seems promising, and then inexplicably plummets into failure.

As a writer, Jim wanted always to do something different in each book. Winter in the Blood is not simply comic, of course, and often affects first-time readers as depressingly bleak. The Death of Jim Loney is darker from the getgo, unalleviated in its search. Jim always insisted that the novel was in fact positive, the narrator taking charge, finally, of his life and fate within an Indian context. Readers seem gradually to be able to perceive this.

Q. What writers did Jim see as influences and inspirations?

Richard Hugo, Jim's first poetry teacher at Univerity of Montana, showed him that one could be both a poet and an ordinary person. Hugo was Jim's principal triggering influence, encouraging him both technically and personally, persuading him that reservation life was a plausible subject matter. Also James Wright. César Vallejo. Juan Rulfo. Hemingway, of course. Camus' The Stranger. Elio Vittorini's Conversations in Sicily. Even Milton, early on; as an undergraduate, Jim actually wrote a dozen pages imitating Milton before realizing how daunting an epic would be!

Q. People talk about James Welch as a key figure in the "Native American Renaissance." Did he compare himself with other Indian writers? Did he see himself as part of any particular artistic group or movement?

Jim was surprised, even amused, to discover that he was a key figure in the Native American Renaissance. Though it made sense to him—there having been no Native American writers when he started writing—he hadn't noticed the Renaissance until Kenneth Lincoln named it. He didn't precisely compare himself to other Indian writers. He included himself among them, feeling affinities with some more than others. He was interested in and read other Indian writers as they emerged, as he met them. In the same way, he didn't compare himself to other Montana writers, though he included himself among them.

Like Montana Neosurrealism? Jim didn't see himself as part of any literary movement. Of course, he had affinities and preferences, but an aversion to categories and to theoretical talk, generally.

Q. Although he achieved a strong following in the United States, he was perhaps even more popular in Europe. Why do you think his overseas audience was so enthusiastic?

The European love of American Indians is a long story. When Buffalo Bill took the Wild West Show to Europe in 1889, Europeans were thrilled to be seeing what they considered the living remnants of a doomed race. That "doomed yet noble savage" stereotype may still retain its exotic appeal. (More than one European expressed disappointment that Jim didn't look "more Indian.") Certainly, many urban citizens in industrialized Europe seem drawn to the primitivist fantasies evoked by the concept of the American Indian. Jim's audiences responded enthusiastically to this accessible, clearly cultivated author whose lyric prose painted a vivid if unflinchingly realistic portrait of contemporary Indian reality.

Though the French deplore their decline in book readership, attendance at their book fairs and festivals would dazzle American publishers. Something like 35,000 people attended one weekend festival in St. Malo in 2001! Even if only 3 percent wanted Jim's book autographed, you can see he'd be mobbed.

Jim's greatest following was in France, where he was interested in how informed French audiences were about contemporary Indian affairs. In the U.S., audiences rarely asked him about Leonard Peltier or AIM; in France, invariably. He began to suggest to his audiences that they perhaps foisted their love of the exotic and unspoiled Other onto the Native Americans and might perhaps do well to turn their attention to the immigrant "exotics" in their own country.

Q. Apart from ethnicity, geography, and basketball skill, your husband does not seem to have had that much in common with the main characters of Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney. He was well-educated, ambitious, and, it seems, fundamentally upbeat about life. How do you think he was able to think his way into characters like Jim Loney and the narrator of Winter in the Blood?

When we read books, we all easily imagine ourselves as the characters, as an astonishing variety of characters with whom we share perhaps very little. I suspect that the first requirement for a writer of fiction is the ability to imagine himself or herself in the skin of characters who are not identical with oneself. Secondly, a writer inevitably writes that character out of some part of his or her psyche which knows and understands that person. In his very first published interview (1971), Jim had just begun Winter and said that the character had taken over from a rather autobiographical narrator. He was always finding his characters developing beyond his initial plans. That was the inventive aspect of the novel to which he was drawn.

Q. You yourself are a teacher and scholar of comparative literature and literary theory. How much did your husband involve you in his creative process?

You might be surprised at how little he involved me. We never sat by the fireside reading the day's writing to one another. When Jim had a draft he liked, he would offer me a poem or a section of a novel to read. Like most authors, he didn't talk about what he was writing while writing. Sometimes he would give me a chunk of a novel to read to test whether something in it worked or not. I wasn't any good as an editor, since I liked everything he wrote. I admire real editors and the kind of help they offer. I learned early on that if I were to question a particular word he used, he had a very good reason for using that word. He tended to write very clean manuscripts, so I offered very little but punctuation, occasional questions, and encouragement. He knew I would like his work, so he relied on others to give him editorial feedback.

Q. What influence did your husband's creative process have on you as a teacher and scholar?

Absolutely enormous. I'm astounded now when I read nonwriters (academics included) discussing writers' lives, the assumptions they make about literal connections between biography and the literary work. It's as though we don't want to listen to writers when they tell us that they are making it up, that imagination is freer than memory. I've been amazed at how different Jim's writing is from the details of his life, though I also