AuthorFulton, Neil

In his novel Winter Counts author David Hcska Wanbli Weiden (3) takes readers to the heart of modern life in Indian Country. (4) Set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south central South Dakota, home of the Sicangu Lakota people, his novel is a compelling crime thriller. But it does more than tell an exciting tale. Through the lives of its characters, the book compels readers to face cultural and legal issues in Indian Country. Much like Louise Erdrich's The Round House, (5) it is a novel that educates and provokes the reader while entertaining them.

The novel's protagonist is Virgil Wounded Horse. (6) Virgil is a Rosebud "enforcer" who hires himself out to extract justice or provide protection for individuals when police and legal structures fail. It is work that is available to him after losing a succession of jobs due to alcohol addiction and becoming guardian to his nephew Nathan after Virgil's sister Sybil was killed in a car accident. (7) This work also serves a higher purpose for Virgil. He sees himself as a protector of his unprotected people and someone with the strength to restore the balance of power for those without.

The book begins with Virgil waiting outside a bar for school gym teacher Guv Yellowhawk. (8) He has been hired to beat Yellowhawk by the parents of a young female student that Yellowhawk abused. During their violent encounter, (9) Virgil is provoked not only because of Yellowhawk's purported crimes, but also because he disparages Virgil's mixed blood status by calling him "halfie." (10) This insult and its effect on Virgil presage that he and others will wrestle with identity, cultural status, and community connection throughout the book. For those ready to discriminate, Virgil is too Indian to belong outside the reservation" and not Indian enough to fully belong within it.

Soon after this encounter, Virgil is approached by tribal councilmen Ben Short Bear. (12) Following the heroin overdose death of a local high school student, Short Bear wants Virgil to investigate whether Rick Crow is the heroin source. (13) Short Bear believes that Crow is bringing Mexican heroin to Rosebud from Denver, Colorado. (14) Initially, Virgil resists the assignment stating it is "not my problem" and because the job has "a bad smell." (15)

Despite Virgil's resistance to the job, he quietly begins looking into Rick Crow. This investigation turns up balloons, which are commonly used to package heroin, in Rick Crow's bedroom. (16) A subsequent visit with a locally connected medicine man to ask questions about participants in the local drug trade and the status of Rick Crow leads Virgil to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. (17) He returns home to find Nathan near death from an apparent heroin overdose.' (8) It turns out that the heroin Nathan took was laced with the significantly more powerful and dangerous drug, fentanyl. (19)

Nathan's overdose leads Virgil to commit to investigating Rick Crow. (20) This also reconnects him with Marie Short Bear, Ben's daughter and Virgil's former romantic partner. (21) Although she resists Virgil using violence to get heroin out of Rosebud, she insists on joining him to pursue Rick Crow after learning that he is the suspected source. (22) Once Nathan regains consciousness, Virgil and Marie prepare to go to Denver to look further into Crow's activity. (23) But before Virgil departs, he visits the graves of his parents and his sister to briefly reminisce and apologize for failing to properly supervise Nathan. (24)

The trip to Denver leads Virgil and Marie to information about Crow's connection to the Mexican drug cartel and leads Virgil and Marie to rekindle their romantic connection. (25) This trip results in contacts not only with Crow's estranged father, but also with an undercover police officer investigating the cartel drug trade. (26) The officer proposes to have Nathan work as confidential informant and make a recorded buy of more heroin. (27) Interrupted by a shocking call back to Rosebud, the trip is cut short because Nathan has been arrested for possession of opioids found in his locker at school. (28)

Nathan's arrest is the spine around which the rest of the book revolves. Virgil wrestles with obtaining effective legal services in geographically remote corners of Indian Country, (29) the harsh nature of penalties under federal drug policy, (30) the morass of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country, (31) and peer group backlash. (32) Virgil's investigation of Nathan's circumstances, Nathan's choices about how to respond in his case, and the many individuals connected to the case and their competing agendas build the complexity and tension of the narrative. Everything is colored by long-standing personal relationships both good and bad in a small community, disagreement about the choices and futures of individuals and Indian people more generally, and the unrelenting pressure of a potential federal drug prosecution against a teen boy. Wciden artfully blends multiple plot lines throughout the book. He gives each the space to develop on its own while maintaining their ultimate connection and their collective contribution to the story of these individuals, but also the larger story of life in Indian country. His novel works steadily to a thrilling and violent denouement while framing daily life in Indian country with sobering but...

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