Winter in the Blood Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Family

Time of work: Early 1970’s

Locale: Northern Montana

Characters DiscussedThe narrator

The Winter in the Bloodnarrator, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

BibliographyArmstrong, Meg. “ Buried in Fine White Ash’: Violence and the Reimagination of Ceremonial Bodies in Winter in the Blood and Bearheart.The American Indian Quarterly 21 (Spring, 1997): 265-298. Armstrong explores the themes of power, transformation, and identity in James Welch’s Winter in the Blood and Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart. She argues that the texts must be read with the understanding of ceremony and the body in order to wholly appreciate American Indian literature.Ballard, Charles G. “The Theme of the Helping Hand in Winter in the Blood.MELUS 17 (Spring, 1991): 63-74. Ballard discusses Welch’s combination of Blackfeet Indian mythic imagery with Western literary techniques in Welch’s novel. The image of the helping hand emerges as the wanderer learns from the people he meets during his journey and also from the Indian wisdom of his grandparents.Davis, Jack L. “Restoration of Indian Identity in Winter in the Blood.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1986. Davis sets Welch’s tale of a rediscovered Native American identity against the historical backdrop of “the military conquest of American Indians.” The critic argues that, as a work of imagination, the novel challenges and expands the historical and anthropological assumptions by which the Native American condition is generally understood.Eisenstein, Paul. “Finding Lost Generations: Recovering Omitted History in Winter in the Blood.MELUS 19 (Fall, 1994): 3-18. Eisenstein explores the similarity in style between Welch’s novel and Ernest Hemingway’s works, particularly In Our Time. He focuses on the literary strategies of omission that both authors have in common: while Hemingway omitted for revision, Welch uses omission as a literary device.Gish, Robert. “Mystery and Mock Intrigue in James Welch’s Winter in the Blood.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1986. Gish is concerned with the technical achievements of the novel. He articulates the relationship between content and form, focusing on the combined presence of tragedy and comedy.Ruoff, A. LaVonne. “Alienation and the Female Principle in Winter in the Blood.” In James Welch, edited by Ron McFarland. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1986. Ruoff examines all aspects of femininity in the novel, even the relationship between the wild-eyed cow and her calf. She supplements her discussion with fascinating research into Cree, Gros Ventres, and Blackfeet tribal customs.Sands, Kathleen M. “Alienation and Broken Narrative in Winter in the Blood.” American Indian Quarterly 4 (May, 1978): 97-105. Sands is a prominent critic of Welch and other Native American writers. She discusses the relationship between theme and structure in the novel, arguing that the concept of alienation is underscored by the narrator’s attempt to locate himself within the novel’s several time frames.
Categories: Characters