Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

There are many reasons why Winter Counts is one of this year’s most significant crime-fiction debuts, but the most potent is its depiction of life on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, where years of neglect and injustice have produced decrepit housing, lousy medical care, substance abuse, nutrition-free food, and generally abysmal everything else for the Lakota people living there. Virgil Wounded Horse operates as a vigilante for hire in this discouraging environment, stepping in to administer hard justice with his fists when the flimsy reservation system fails. An unusually thoughtful tough guy, he’s shaken down to his boots when his young teenage nephew, who lives with him, OD’s during his first encounter with heroin. The boy survives, but a furious Virgil wants to find out who was pushing drugs to kids at the high school, and forges an alliance with a lawyer and a narcotics cop to draw out the dealers and their boss.

Weiden, who spent part of his youth on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, writes with warmth and dry humor about those who live on reservations, torn between leaving to make a better life and remaining with the tribe either out of inertia or a need to stay connected to their fading sacred traditions. A new generation of energized young Native Americans, represented by Virgil’s activist girlfriend and a charismatic young chef with new ideas about old ingredients, runs up against internal corruption and external foes such as the drug dealers and an apathetic federal government. Yet none of this feels screed-like; as Virgil gradually opens himself to visions of his ancestors either in his dreams or through tribal rituals, Winter Countstakes on a plainspoken lyricism that serves as a tender counterpoint to the low-level misery he’s trying to transcend.