Kate’s Review: “Winter Counts”

Book: “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Publishing Info: Ecco, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

Review: While I am certainly an aficionado of the thriller genre, as a genre it can span over a number of sub genres. I tend to not really go as much into the literary side of things, nor do I really tread towards the incredibly dark. And given that “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is both of those things, I was stretching my preferred subgenre muscles a bit. But I’m also always game to read books by Indigenous authors, and when I read up on this one it captured my interest. One birthday gift later, and I owned it, though it sat on the shelf awhile. I eventually picked it up. Almost immediately it went dark and bleak. But it also snagged me in even as I was immediately uncomfortable.

Our main character is Virgil Wounded Horse, a Lakota man living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s made his way as an enforcer who will dole out justice for those who cannot get it by other means, be it due to corruption, apathy, or both from local law enforcement and tribal governance. Right off the bat we have a trigger warning, as he beats the absolute shit out of a child rapist. This is just the beginning of the violence that is within this book, but it never feels exploitative, nor does it feel like it’s ever too much. “Winter Counts” doesn’t shy away from the very desperate circumstances on the reservation, and what those circumstances can drive people to do just to survive, and how predatory people can take advantage of it. While I feel like a character like Virgil in many other settings (especially within certain tropes of the thriller genre) may come off as morally ambiguous (and in some ways he kind of does here), overall Virgil never feels like an antihero, probably because of the environment he’s operating within. This book brings up a lot of hard realties and truths about 21st century life for Indigenous people both on and off reservations, and it isn’t limited to drug cartels. The fallout of racism, colonialism, and extended genocide by the American Government are throughout this book

The mystery of who is behind the cartel and drug activity on the reservation is the main thread of this story, given that Virgil’s nephew Nathan gets caught up in it after almost fatally OD’ing on some of the stuff brought in. Nathan and his ex girlfriend Marie set out to find the culprits, Virgil doing so because it’s personal and Marie acting as a guiding moral voice towards what it does to the Native community as a whole. While at times I wasn’t as interested in the ‘who’ of the whodunnit, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to know, it was more because the other themes of the story and the inner conflicts of Virgil, Marie, and others were more interesting. Marie is more idealistic and social justice driven, while Virgil is just trying to survive, and these two motivations sometimes bumped against each other, though thankfully never led to questions of who was ‘right’, as both are in their own ways. But that said, I was surprised by the ultimate solution to the mystery, even if the mystery itself took a bit of a backseat to other interests in my reading motivation.

And yeah, like I said, this is a DARK book. It took me a little while to get through it just because the heaviness of it all could be a bit much. But it’s also compelling and powerful, and totally worth it. Weiden kept me coming back for more, even if I had to pace myself a bit to get there. Just know that there are many triggering themes within its pages.

“Winter Counts” is a bold book from a striking new voice in thriller fiction. If you’re looking for a new twisty thriller and can handle the darkness, I definitely suggest you check it out.

Rating 8: Dark, compelling, and powerful, “Winter Counts” is a difficult read at times, but worth it to be sure.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Winter Counts” is included on the Goodreads lists “Popsugar 2021 #16: A Book by an Indigenous Author”, and “2020 Adult Debut Novels by Authors of Color”.

Find “Winter Counts” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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