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.A CONVERSATION WITH PROF. LOIS M. WELCH, WIDOW OF JAMES WELCH
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 laugh to see that my Modigliani print is on Rhea’s wall inWinter in the Blood. We want writers to illustrate themes; they want to explore characters and situations, to write a second-person novel with no flashbacks, for example. They are amazingly interested in technique. Further, I was almost remarkably ignorant about Native Americans when we met; I put in a thirty-seven-year tutorial and feel a bit more informed.
Q. Readers of Winter in the Blood may be surprised to learn that your husband wrote much of it during a long stay in Greece. How did you happen to be there, and what was that period like for the two of you?
By the fall of 1972 I had been teaching without a break for ten years and we had saved enough money for me to take a leave of absence. So we bought a VW van in London, camping south to Greece in September. We found an apartment in a tiny village on the coast south of Athens and settled in to write, learning Greek, exploring the area, and ending up friends with a number of Greek and American writers. At first Jim felt out of his element (I had traveled abroad more than he had), but he gradually came to love the terrain, the people, the culture, the food, the retsina.
Q. Writers are not always the best company when they are working. What was your husband like when he was working on a novel?
Jim was always good company. I learned, however, to tell when he was on automatic pilot—basically the entire time he was writing a book. While writing novels, his characters and their world would vie for his attention with our real world. He still liked doing simple chores like mowing the lawn and vacuuming, but was quite stringent about his schedule during these periods, not given to much socializing. His editors never got used to the fact that his night shift went from midnight to four a.m., so he never rose before ten-thirty—which is lunchtime in New York.
Q. What, for you, are some of the outstanding aspects of your husband’s work? What, in your opinion, were some of the things he did best as a writer?
He always surprised me, from the first poem. Especially his details: ordinary life seen intimately, vividly. He looked at the world without preconceptions, lovingly, unflinchingly. He was not given to showing off verbally, but had a gift for the memorable line: e.g., “It’s not like you’d expect, nothing like you’d expect.” His timing always seemed perfect to me. Also, I loved the way he welcomed various interpretations of his work, realizing we all get what we can from books.
Q. Are there passages in Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney of which you are especially fond?
In Winter in the Blood, I love the discovery scene with Yellow Calf. Winter is very scenic. Loney is more linear, I think; I love almost every individual paragraph, so subtle, so concise, but no passage stands out for me.
Q. Do you have any personal memories of the writing of either of these novels that you would like to share?
If you have ever watched someone write, you know it’s undramatic. Writers thrive on long uninterrupted stretches of free time.Winter was finished in Greece, as I said above. Jim was committed to some reading trips and workshops during Loney; they were necessary diversions. I’ve almost one long single memory of Jim sitting at his typewriter (later a computer) in a warm circle of light in an otherwise dark room—whether the Greek living room, the little paneled study at Roseacres Farm, or his bigger study on Wylie.