Sweet spot between gritty thriller, social novel

By David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Ecco, 336 pages, $27.99

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s gritty first-in-a-series thriller, Winter Counts, is mostly set 200 miles southeast of Mount Rushmore on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation. Just one scene takes place at the monument, but it captures the novel’s tone and the complicated identity of Weiden’s flawed hero, Virgil Wounded Horse.

Virgil observes tourists in the Black Hills and thinks, “few of these people knew they were traveling on sacred ground, lands that had been promised by treaty to the Lakota people forever but were stolen after gold was discovered in the 1860s. Adding insult to injury, Mount Rushmore had been carved out of the holy mountain previously known as Six Grandfathers as a giant screw-you to the Lakotas.” Later, Virgil, who’s been called “half-breed” and “halfie,” thinks, “What did I care about some rocks and valleys?”

The betrayal of Native Americans and the issue of Native identity are the backbones of this passionately told tale that hits the sweet spot between crime fiction and social novel. Weiden, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, spent time on the Rosebud Reservation growing up.

Injustice has steered the career path for Virgil, who is Rosebud’s vigilante. He’s the guy residents turn to after the tribal police and the feds have let them down. Tribal police can’t prosecute felony crimes that take place on the reservation. They are under the auspices of federal agencies, but many cases are ignored, Weiden writes, including crimes against women. “It was open season for raping any Native woman, so long as the rape occurred on Indian land.” Virgil especially likes beating up men who hurt women and children. “I never felt so alive as when I was administering some righteousness.”

The violence also helps him forget, for a little while, the markings on his winter counts, a pictograph-based calendar system used by the Lakota. His winter counts mark sad reminders: the loss of his parents and the death of his beloved sister in a head-on collision. Virgil is now the legal guardian of his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan, whose future Virgil obsesses about.

When Nathan is arrested for selling drugs, Virgil endangers himself and Nathan to help knock out a drug ring involving Mexican cartels, a Denver street gang, and Native American drug dealers. No surprise that a sting operation goes sideways, and Virgil goes on a one-man mission to save his nephew and stop the selling of drugs on the reservation.

History, betrayal, and heartbreak are out front in this novel, but it’s also an action-packed tale bursting with criminals, pursuits, fights, and standoffs. It’s sure to please the most seasoned thriller fans. Weiden applies all the standard crime novel tropes, but compelling characters and the reservation setting make everything fresh. There’s a fight-to-the-death scene involving a cattle prod that still has me cringing.

Weiden leavens the dark elements with humor and snark. When Virgil’s friend Tommy talks about a lawsuit that could return vast lands to the Lakota, he asks Tommy where all the White people will go. “The Lakota government will set up reservations for the wasicus, give ’em commodity foods and open boarding schools for the little kids,” Tommy says.

And while Virgil is hunting Rick Crow, a suspected drug dealer who bullied Virgil when he was a child, he stops at a marijuana dispensary and asks the shopkeeper: “You ever see a guy in here called Rick Crow? About six feet tall, long black hair? Indian guy?” The dreadlock-wearing White guy responds: “I believe you mean Native American.”

You can zip through Winter Counts for the fast-paced thrills or the chance to learn about Native culture, but slow down to enjoy the beauty of Weiden’s writing. “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.” 

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