Book Review #38: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (2020)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5⭐️
Title: Winter Counts: A Novel
Author: David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Published: 2020 (Ecco, HarperCollins, New York)
Pages: 325 (Hardcover)
Genres: Fiction, Thriller, Crime, Suspense
CW: drug use, violence, trauma, death, teen issues, depression, Native American issues, bullying
Link Here

My borrowed copy of Winter Counts in front of some dry grass and a lake

I hope everyone is having a good week so far and getting ready for the holidays! Whether your holiday is filled with no celebration or absolute shenanigans, I hope you all take advantage of the time where everything does not feel as ordinary. My holidays are going to be pretty quiet this year, but honestly, I do not mind it. I’m excited to finish my year by reading more books before 2021 arrives, and this week I finished my latest, Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this one, and I was intrigued by the title and synopsis. I believe this is Weiden’s first novel, and by the end of it I was invested. This novel was good!

… I remembered what she told me just before she died. ‘Akita mani yo’, she said, See everything as you go. I think she meant that I needed to be aware of the world as it really existed, not the way I wanted it to be. Indian awareness” – David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts

Winter Counts is a tale of vigilantism and confronting not just bad guys on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The tale follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a member of the Lakota Nation, as he tries to raise his teenage nephew Nathan Wounded Horse and lives his life as a local enforcer. Virgil takes justice in his own hands on the reservation by taking revenge on those who do evil things to others and the community. When the police and feds fail them, it’s up to the people of the reservation to solve their own problems, which is how vigilantes like Virgil are made (which is based on true stories, by the way). When Nathan becomes mixed up in a heroin scandal, Virgil comes to his aid to protect his young nephew from getting caught up between US federal and tribal matters. Joined by his ex-girlfriend Marie, Virgil investigates the drug and criminal troubles that have plagued his community. Virgil must also confront his own problems and shortcomings if he is to save Nathan and move forward.

I don’t know much about justice. But I think the white man has a different idea about it. A lot of our young men are in prison for crimes they didn’t do – maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the people come to you for justice, right? When the police won’t do anything about some winyan who got beat up, you’re the one they call. For justice” – David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts

The story was incredibly action packed, and there was never a dull moment from start to finish. I normally do not read many novels where the main focus is a vigilante out for justice, but I was impressed. This novel was not only action-filled, but the drama surrounding Virgil’s and Nathan’s predicaments was also captivating. The author takes the time to dive into each character’s backgrounds and feelings, which only created a richer feel in the narrative. He also highlights current Native American cultural and social issues due to the US’s history of oppression and fallacies. But to me, this is only to provide the backstory into the reservation and the character’s motives. The author maintains focus on an almost complete cast of strong and authentic Native American characters, and their stories.

Even the Supreme Court agreed that the Black Hills had been illegally seized, and the Lakota nation won a big lawsuit against the government in 1980, with hundreds of millions of dollars awarded in damages. But the leaders of the Lakota nations refused to accept the settlement, stating that they wanted the land back, not the money. The government wouldn’t hand over the Hills, and the Lakotas wouldn’t take the blood money, and so the settlement sits in a bank account earning interest, over $1 billion. If the seven Lakota nations were to accept the money and divide it equally among the people, every man, woman and child would get about $25,000 each… As I drove through the Hills, I felt guilty for thinking about the money again, but I resolved to wise up. What did I care about some rocks and valleys?” – David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts

The main part of this novel that I was not a fan of was that the big plot twist was predictable. I won’t spoil it (promise!), and this may not be all the reader’s viewpoints, but after the first quarter of the novel after the reader learns the main conflict, I already figured out what the big twist could be. And I was correct, in case you were wondering. But if you can get past that and the general cheesiness of the plot, I think many readers will enjoy this one!

What I’d discovered was that sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good—it changes a little over the years, but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again” – David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts

I can not only tell that the author is an academic from his writing, which is intelligent and organized. Weiden has had multiple fellowships, and he received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and is currently a professor of Native American studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He did thorough research, and his background as someone belonging to the Lakota nation gives a valuable perspective into writing a fictional tale about members living on a Lakota reservation. Why should you read this book? If you enjoy energy driven and thrilling novels about Native American vigilantes out for revenge and self-discovery, this is the book for you.

I give this one a 3.5 out of 5!


Are you wondering how I rate the books I write about? Click here.

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