I am so glad I picked up a copy of Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden when Book of the Month had it as a September 2020 choice. This crime fiction set on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota was fast paced, hard hitting, and different than any other crime fiction I have read.
Winter Counts is set on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, which is enforced by tribal police with minimal enforcement power and the Federal government who rarely prosecute crimes that occur on the reservation. Virgil Wounded Horse is a vigilante enforcer who takes on the cases that the police and Feds won’t take on. He gets information from one of the tribal leaders that heroin is making it’s way into Rosebud and is specifically being targeted at the high school students. This hits home for Virgil as he is the guardian for his teenage nephew. What begins as a single manhunt, turns personal and much bigger than Virgil imagined. With current themes of reservation life and the US’ treatment of indigenous people both in the past and in the current day, this crime fiction is unique in every sense and serves as a semi-history lesson.
Winter Counts is a breakout debut novel with a story that needs to be shared. Growing up and living in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota, I have some exposure to tribal laws on reservations and the indigenous population, but this book opened my eyes to just how much this marginalized community suffers. The story of drugs and Virgil having to take matters into his own hands is not completely fiction. Things like this happen everyday on reservations and law enforcement barely bats an eye. It was hard to not become infuriated while reading this book, but it made me want to educate myself more on what the indigenous community faces. For a group of people that once called this land home and lived in peace, what they endure now is despicable and is no way to respect them.
This story is fast paced, and the twists are unpredictable, but nothing is more important than the history lesson David Heska Wanbli Weiden provides us. I loved learning about the Lakota traditions and felt honored that he was able to share what he did with us. I highly recommend you read the author’s note at the end, as it gives you a well rounded view of what went into this book and he also provides book recommendations if you want to read more on the topics he covered. I definitely added some to my reading list.
Content warning: racism towards indigenous people, violence, death of loved one, murder, drug overdose
“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 awhile, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.”