knife stuck into a tree

The ending of the novel slayed me.

It continues to slay me, every time I think of it. It’s a jab inside the stomach, a sick, wrenching feeling that can never disperse, but only be masked by other thoughts, until, inevitably, I think of the ending again and get jabbed once more.

In the LizaAchilles universe of literary greats, there’s Shakespeare, and there’s James Welch.

James Welch

I’m not kidding around. It’s possible that you have never heard of James Welch. But he’s my favorite writer, tied with Shakespeare.

To give a brief introduction, in case that’s necessary, James Welch was (he died in 2003) a Native American writer and poet based in Montana.


Today, I’d like to focus on his 1990 novel The Indian Lawyer, which I read recently and found to be a masterpiece. One thing I especially love about Welch’s writing is his handling of descriptions of nature. Here’s one such description from the novel:

“The wind had kicked up but the snow was frozen and the yellow light from the streetlamp was as clear as a January moon over the plains.”

As you can see, the writing is spare, with no sentimentality. The sentence manages to simultaneously convey the landscape of the northern Great Plains and the desolation of a nighttime city street. It perfectly fits the mood of the story at this juncture, which is one of loneliness and bleak acceptance of the circumstances.

Two Jabs

Now, I won’t spoil the novel and tell you about the metaphorical knife jab at the end; but I will tell you that a knife jab also happens at the beginning of the novel. Here are the first two sentences:

“It had happened a little less than a year ago in the library on the high side. He felt the shank go in and it surprised him.”

Like the master he is, Welch sets off the major drama of the tale in those two opening sentences, and then spins its unfolding for the rest of the novel. Jack Harwood, a white prisoner, has been shanked by some Indian prisoners. This tension between the races runs through the entire novel and extends far from the prison to encompass all of Montana and beyond.

And the reader is jabbed at the end.

Have you read any of James Welch’s novels or poetry?