James Welch (Blackfeet-Gros Ventre) (b. 1940)
Contributing Editor: Linda Wagner-Martin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Welch's fiction is immediately accessible. Students find it powerful. They shirk from its relentlessly depressing impact, but Welch has written Winter in the Blood, The Death of Jim Loney, and much of his poetry to create that impact. His writing is protest literature, so skillfully achieved that it seems apolitical.
Sometimes hostile to the completely new, students today seem to be willing to rely on canon choices. Once Welch is placed for them, they respond with empathy to his fiction.
The general setting of the culture, the hardships generations of Native Americans have learned to live with, the socioeconomic issues make deciphering characters' attitudes easier. The strengths of the Indian culture need to be described as well, because students in many parts of the country are unfamiliar with customs, imagery, and attitudes that are necessary in reading this excerpt.
Welch's precision and control must be discussed. Students must see how they are in his power throughout this excerpt. Further, they must want to read not only this novel, but the others as well.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is also good to emphasize the choice of art as profession. For Welch, giving voice to frustration has created memorable fiction and poetry. His most recent novels, Fools Crow and Indian Lawyer, do much more than depict the alienation of the contemporary Native American man--but to do so, he draws on nineteenth-century history as the basis of his plot in Fools and a different stratum of culture for Lawyer.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Questions of realism and how realistic writing is achieved: characterization, language, situation, emphasis on dialogue rather than interior monologue.
Questions of appropriateness: What is believable about the fiction, and how has Welch created that intensity that is so believable? Why is a plot like this more germane to the lives Welch describes than an adventurous, action-filled narrative would have been?
The issue of political literature (which will occur often in selections from the contemporary section) will need attention. How can Welch create a sympathetic hero without portraying the poverty and disillusion of a culture? How can he achieve this accuracy without maligning Native Americans?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright are obvious choices for comparison, but the differences are important as well. Wright relied in many cases on dialect, with language spelled as words might have been pronounced, and Hemingway used carefully stylized language in his quantities of dialogue, so that identifying characters by place or education was sometimes difficult. Welch creates a dialect that is carefully mannered, as if the insecure speaker had modeled his language, like his life, on the middle-class TV image of a person and a family.
Refer to the headnote in the text for complete information.