At the beginning of a novel, the reader needs to be curious about something. Otherwise, the reader will probably stop reading. At the beginning of The Indian Lawyer, James Welch masterfully sparks the reader’s curiosity. How? By sparking curiosity within the minds of his characters.
The word why appears, prominently, twice in chapter one. Both why’s are directed at Jack Harwood, the white prisoner who got shanked by Indians. The first why occurs in the middle of the chapter:
“‘Okay, Jack, the million-dollar question—why?'”
A parole board member is asking Harwood why he committed an armed robbery. The answers Harwood give don’t make sense. The parole board member wants an answer that makes sense. The reader is left wondering, what makes Harwood tick?
The second why concludes chapter one:
“‘I want you to meet him,’ he called. ‘Soon. Make an appointment with him, bump into him in the grocery store, anything—just meet him. I’ll call you.’
“By then she was through the gate and she stepped to one side. ‘Why?’ she cried, but Harwood smiled and waved as he walked briskly back to his unit.”
Again you can see the spare, smart writing style, devoid of sentimentality. Harwood is talking with his wife during a visiting period at the prison. Harwood asks his wife to meet one of the three parole board members. Not the one who asked him why previously in the chapter, but the quiet one.
Sylvester Yellow Calf.
The Indian lawyer.
The reader is left wondering, once again, what makes Harwood tick?
The reader is also left with a distinct feeling of foreboding. We have all the elements of a grand drama. A man who commits crimes for unknown reasons. A race war in the prison. A race war about to spill out of the prison walls.
And an Indian lawyer caught in the thick of it.