Thursday, September 23, 2010

Winter in the Blood - the Movie

Northern Montana, near Havre. Photo by Matt Lavin
I wrote a review of this short novel by Montana writer James Welch years ago and want to post it again because I've just learned that there's a project afoot to make a film of it. The filmmakers are hoping to shoot the film in northern Montana, where the story takes place. They already have a beautiful, thoughtful website with images that capture the spirit of the story, photos of the proposed cast, and a blog.

The review. James Welch is probably Montana's foremost Native American writer, and this wonderful novella is evidence of his considerable talent. Published 36 years ago (1974), it takes place in the shadow that was cast by the nation's approaching bicentennial. While neither bitter nor angry, it manages anyway to portray a country that has little to show for itself but "greed and stupidity." The values the book embraces are finally those available to every American, native or otherwise - compassion and respect for life and the living.

The story concerns a few days in the life of a 32-year-old man, descendant of Indians and living in two worlds, his mother's home on the reservation and the dreary bars and hotels of nearby Havre and Malta, Montana. His days and nights blending together in an alcoholic haze, he meets a deranged white man, picks up women and gets punched in the nose.

Meanwhile, he is haunted by a past that includes the death of an older brother and an injury to his knee that multiple operations have not remedied. Out of these unpromising circumstances, Welch finds the beginnings of a kind of personal salvation. By reaching back through the memory of a blind old man's act of charity, he restores the younger man's vision of himself.

Among the ranks of modern Native American writers, such as Louise Erdrich, Welch opens up a world for non-Indian readers that goes well beyond the usual stereotypes. His Indians are strikingly individual, absorbed in the everyday, motivated as much by self-interest and cock-eyed notions as their white counterparts. In Welch's hands, a conversation among five of them can be as comic and absurd as Ionesco. Meanwhile, the Native American past is there to ground a person with a sense of purpose and identity. For all its sorrows, Welch's story is finally a joy to read.

Photo credit:
Photo of northern Montana, near Havre,


  1. It sounds like a fascinating, wonderful book. Let's hope the movie does it justice.

  2. Yeah! Be interesting to watch, see if they can transfer the book to film?

  3. Now this sounds very interesting. The only native American author I've really read quite a bit of is N. Scott Momaday. I'll check out this book.

  4. Can't wait to see this. Must go find the short story.

  5. Leah, the novel sets a very high standard for storytelling.

    Cheyenne, since it's set in the 1970s, they might want to update it.

    Charles, I never got into Momaday. Erdrich is more my speed.

    Kari Lynn, don't know how long a wait we might have. They're still raising money for the project. There should be a copy of the novel in your local library.

  6. I ordered a copy of this book earlier today on which lists copies for around $4.00 including shipping. Thanks for the tip, Ron.

  7. They have scouted some really good locations out towards Chinook and Harlem that will fit the book perfectly. Cottonwood lined creeks, the Milk River, reservoirs and even the mud covered log cabins...all authentic. As far as updating the story, I'm not sure that they are. Time seems to stand still up here on the Hi-line so it is very easy for them to shoot this film and keep it in the early '70s. The only problem I can see is with the scenes in Havre (where I live). While The Palace bar is still here, the Gables (a bar which my great uncle once owned) no longer exists...not even the building. There only stands a large modern US Bank there today. Most of the shooting is outside of town as Havre is only a small part of the book. The weather has been great with equal amounts of sunny days and heavy down pours that should fit nicely in the film and keep it within the story of the book. Mosquitos are plentiful this year too. I checked the book out from the library on campus (Northern) and it just so happens to be a signed copy which is very cool. I can't wait to see the movie next year.