Author: James Welch
First published: 1974
Locale: Northern Montana
Time: Early 1970's
The narrator, an American Indian of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre ancestry. He remains nameless throughout the novel. As the story begins, he has returned to his family's home on the reservation after years of drifting from place to place. The familiar sights there stir painful memories of his dead father and brother, the only people he ever loved. Their deaths triggered his wandering. He spends much of the novel searching for Agnes, a young Cree woman who ran away from him soon after he took her home to his mother and grandmother, who mistakenly believed her to be his wife. He follows her into a dismal world of tawdry bars, casual violence, and drunken sexual encounters, meeting a succession of strange men and lonely women. He finds Agnes and pleads with her to settle down with him, hoping that she can bring him enough warmth and happiness to crowd out his insistent memories. Instead, her friends beat him. When he returns home to the reservation, as much tired of himself as he is of squalid town life, he learns that his grandmother died while he was gone. Beaten down by events, he nevertheless experiences an emotional epiphany, prompted by an unlikely event. During a tremendous struggle to free a cow trapped in mud, his grief for his father and brother lessens because he realizes how much he mourns them. At the novel's end, he begins to plan for the future. He will finally allow a doctor to examine the leg he injured at the time of his brother's death, and he will propose properly to Agnes.
Teresa First Raise, the narrator's mother, a handsome, bitter Blackfeet woman of fifty-five years. The death of John First Raise, her husband and the narrator's father, left her a prosperous widow, but prosperity does not bring her happiness. Even before her husband died, she was discontented and prone to making the nagging remarks that drove away first her husband and then the narrator. Soon after the narrator's arrival at the family home, she disappears inexplicably for three days. When she reappears, she is hung over and accompanied by a new husband.
Mose First Raise, the narrator's dead brother, who appears in flashbacks. The two brothers were close, working happily together on their parents' farm. One evening at dusk, a calf strayed from the cattle they were herding. Distracted by the calf, Mose rode into the path of an oncoming car. He was struck and killed.
Agnes, a young Cree woman who, although barely out of high school, already has acquired a reputation for drunkenness, thievery, and promiscuity. Both Teresa and the narrator's grandmother despise her because she is Cree; the Cree are traditional enemies of the Blackfeet. Her thoughts and feelings are not explored in the novel; she is seen through the mostly disapproving eyes of the narrator.
Lame Bull, the narrator's new stepfather. He masks his ambition with geniality. His marriage to Teresa First Raise makes him a successful cattleman, and although the narrator sees him as a fortune hunter, he proves his worth through his hard work and shrewdness.
The airplane man, a mysterious white man who befriends the narrator in a bar. The airplane man gets his name from one of the conflicting stories he tells about himself, a story that involves airline tickets torn into pieces and the desertion of his wife and children. When he later claims to be pursued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he asks the narrator to drive him to refuge in Canada. The airplane man is last seen in handcuffs, captured by the police for an unknown crime.
Yellow Calf, an old Blackfeet man who is blind, wise, and more than he first appears to be. After listening to Yellow Calf's stories of Blackfeet history, the narrator believes that Yellow Calf was not only his grandmother's secret protector many years ago, when she was abandoned by her tribe, but also her illicit lover. The timing of these events coincides with the birth of Teresa First Raise. If the story is true, Yellow Calf is the narrator's maternal grandfather.
The grandmother, Teresa's mother, who is ailing and near death. Once the wife of a Blackfeet chief, she and Yellow Calf are the narrator's links to a traditional Indian identity. Her funeral ends the novel.