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'Winter Counts' review: Native American culture meets vigilante justice

"Winter Counts" is the debut novel of David

"Winter Counts" is the debut novel of David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Credit: TNS/Ecco

WINTER COUNTS by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco, 336 pp., $27.99)

South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation provides an evocative background for this compelling debut about Virgil Wounded Horse, who metes out vigilante justice as an enforcer, taking up the mantle from the tribal police's limited powers and the federal government that only investigates murders on the reservation.

While Virgil has many of the traits too often employed in thrillers — he's cynical, anti-social and has battled the bottle — David Heska Wanbli Weiden elevates "Winter Counts" with a provocative look at culture, history and bigotry. Half Lakota, half white, Virgil is most comfortable living on the reservation though he scoffs at Native American spirituality and ritual. His main connection to people is his 14-year-old nephew Nathan, who he has custody of since his sister — Nathan's mother — was killed in a car accident three years earlier.

Tribal councilman Ben Short Bear wants to hire Virgil to find out who is bringing heroin into the reservation and shut down the operation any way he can. While Ben is upset that a teenager recently overdosed, he also admits getting rid of heroin would help his reelection. At first, Virgil isn't interested — he'd rather take his form of justice to bullies, pedophiles and domestic abusers. Also, Ben is the father of Virgil's former girlfriend, Marie Short Bear, with whom he is still in love. Virgil changes his mind when Nathan is affected. Soon, Virgil and Marie are on the road tailing the drug operation to Denver.

"Winter Counts" is elevated by Weiden's forceful writing, affinity for complex, realistic characters and attention to cultural touchstones. The term "winter counts" refers to the pictorial calendars or histories in which tribal records and events were recorded by Native Americans in North America — a fitting title for this novel.Weiden, who is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, delivers one of the year's strongest debuts with "Winter Counts."

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