It wasn’t until late last summer that I first heard of Winter Counts, the debut novel by David Heska Wanbli Widen. It was one of the main picks for Book of the Month in September, and it instantly intrigued me. I finally bought it in January, and since it’s winter now, it felt like the perfect time to dive in.
Winter Counts is a sort of thriller and family drama set in South Dakota. It follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a Lakota man living on a reservation with his teenaged nephew. He’s haunted by the deaths of his parents and sister, by the bullying he experienced as a kid, and by the injustices Native Americans have faced for generations. Virgil taps into those furies to work as a vigilante, beating up criminals who unfairly escape the law. But one day, Virgil is hired for a new kind of job: hunting down a drug dealer who’s been dealing heroin to local teenagers. It’s not until Virgil’s nephew falls victim to the drug cartel that Virgil decides to get involved.
From South Dakota to Colorado and around the Midwest, Virgil tracks down the various players in this drug ring. Meanwhile, he works to protect his nephew, both from drugs and legal prosecution, and grapples with a renewed love for his ex-girlfriend. Weaving in thrills, family drama, and a dash of romance, Winter Counts is a powerful novel with both grit and heart.
I have to admit, Winter Counts may be the first book by or about a Native American person that I’ve read in my adult life. Over the past year, I’ve aimed to fully diversify my reading, but one blind spot I discovered is the lack of Indigenous representation. Although I loved books depicting Native Americans when I was a kid, it’s somehow taken me several years to get their stories back onto my bookshelf in adulthood. I’m ashamed, but excited to continue reading more Indigenous peoples’ stories.
All of that said, one thing I loved about Winter Counts was how David Heska Wanbli Widen weaves in Native American history, culture, and current issues. I learned a lot, yet the themes that were included also always felt right for the story. Virgil Wounded Horse is a character who cares very much about his people, the shared history of injustice they have, and the ongoing issues they face with racism and limited governmental resources. His very role as a vigilante is largely borne out of the lack of legal protections afforded to people living on reservations. Where do people turn when pedophiles and rapists get away with their horrific crimes? In this story, they turn to a man like Virgil to take care of delivering justice.
However, Virgil’s vigilante violence, manner of talking, and general outlook contributed to another noticeable element to the book: it’s very masculine. Of course, I’ve read plenty of books written by men, and I’ve read plenty of stories with more ‘macho’ themes. Going into Winter Counts, I knew drug cartels and crime — themes I generally find in more male-authored books — would play big roles here. Even so, this is perhaps the first time I’ve read a novel that felt so strikingly, for lack of a better word, masculine. Admittedly, coming right out of the historical romance I just finished may have been a bit jarring! It took me some time to get used to this novel’s style, but not at all in a negative way. I like reading all kinds of stories and voices, and I enjoyed diving into such a different narrative than I’m used to reading.
As gruff as Virgil at first seems, one thing I love about his character is how much he truly cares about those around him. He loved his parents and younger sister. Now that they’re all gone, he’s the only family his nephew, Nathan, has left. Virgil cares for Nathan like a son. Early on, when Virgil reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Marie, you can see that same caring nature again. He’s gentle and nurturing with those he loves, adding to the attributes that make him likable, in spite of any flaws he has. This goes hand in hand with his sense of justice and caring about his community.
Although Winter Counts is categorized as a thriller, for much of the book, it feels more like a family drama. There’s some mystery and some investigation into the drug cartel issue, but Virgil is largely focused on keeping his nephew healthy, out of prison, and safe from the drug dealers. He also spends a lot of time reconnecting with Marie, forming a tentative new relationship with her, and supporting her in her career ambitions. The novel revolves around family and community, but also around Virgil’s identity as a Lakota man. In some ways, he feels disconnected from Native American traditions and spirituality, yet as the book moves forward, we see Virgil slowly accept more of the Lakota traditions back into his life. In fact, this is one of the standout themes of Winter Counts.
It’s only towards the end of the book that it transforms into the breakneck speed thriller you may have anticipated. Suddenly, a life-or-death event will leave you on the edge of your seat, racing through the pages as Virgil does everything he can to save a loved one and himself. It has a shocking end, but it’s also fully satisfying.
The way Winter Counts closes really sets it up for a sequel, though I’m not sure if that’s what the author has planned. Although this story is neatly wrapped up, the last page introduces something new that could easily turn this debut into the first of a series. I hope there will be a sequel, because I’d love to see more of these characters.
Winter Counts was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I loved it. I appreciated getting to know Lakota culture and history within the context of a drama thriller, and the characters were all nuanced and compelling. This is a masterful debut, and I can’t wait to read more form David Heska Wanbli Widen.
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