House Made of Dawn | Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

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House Made of Dawn | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Much of the plot consists of recollections and contemplations. While these sections are not active in the traditional plotline, they are important for understanding the meaning of the events that occur in the present time of the story. The past and present sequence of events is fluid, and childhood events are told at the same time as present-day events and stories.

The Longhair: Walatowa, Cañon de San Diego, 1945

It is 1945. Francisco picks up his grandson, Abel, who was fighting overseas during World War II. Abel, who grew up on the reservation in New Mexico, is drunk when he arrives. On this initial return to the reservation, Abel is unable to connect to his grandfather as he struggles with a sense of displacement and with alcohol abuse. The local priest, Father Olguin, helps Abel connect to Angela St. John, a pregnant white woman who is renting a house locally. Angela's husband is still in Los Angeles, and she is not happy about being pregnant. She hires Abel to cut firewood.

The narrative does not stay centered on one person or in the present time. Instead, it shifts to include Father Olguin and Angela, showing them both to be interested observers of the Native American ceremonies. One narrative focuses on Juan Reyes (an albino) as he plucks a rooster from the ground and kills it by beating the rooster on Abel (who is bloodied by the bird). The shift in focus also shows Father Olguin studying his predecessor's journal and letters, as well as Angela watching Abel lustfully. Abel thinks about his childhood, his mother's death, his brother's death, the capture of an eagle, and his time in combat.

Angela and Abel have sex. Abel murders the albino, whom he believes to be a shape-shifter (a being capable of changing from one form to another, such as from a human to a snake).

The Priest of the Sun: Los Angeles, 1952

This section commences in 1952 in Los Angeles after Abel is released from prison, where he has spent seven years. The focus, however, is initially on John Big Bluff Tosamah, a Kiowa who delivers a sermon tying together the Christian biblical text about "the word" and the Kiowa story of Tai-me. He emphasizes "old John" (the biblical John the Baptist) got it wrong because he kept talking and complicated the story.

The focus now shifts to Abel who is contemplating the sea and suffering with pain. He thinks about his injuries, his legs, and Fat Josie who healed him. He briefly thinks of Angela St. John in a two-line snippet of poetry. He then recalls his trial six years earlier. The narrative focus shifts back and forth between his recollections and those of Father Olguin at the trial. While Abel's scene is set in 1952, the novel's present time, and is situated in Los Angeles, the priest is not there, and yet the novel still provides his point of view (told in the third person) from six years earlier. When the narrative switches back to Abel, he is thinking of being ill, of shoes that he had owned, and of Milly (the social worker).

The focus shifts once more back to John Big Bluff Tosamah and a peyote ritual. Then the narrative switches to Abel's thoughts of the war. Milly recalls her childhood and her daughter's death years in the past. Abel is aware he'll die of exposure if he doesn't move. Tosamah speaks of his grandmother, her life and death. He narrates going to Rainy Mountain after her death.

The Night Chanter: Los Angeles, 1952

Ben Benally meets Abel, who has just been released from prison, and offers him a place to stay. Abel drinks a lot, and he is unsettling to John Big Bluff Tosamah, who complains Abel was a "longhair" and wouldn't let go of the past. Abel does not talk to anyone initially, but he warms up to Ben and Milly.

Ben recalls the past, about being on the land and meeting a woman, Pony. He then shifts back to his present and thinks about Abel's difficulties: Abel doesn't get on well at his job and he's hassled by his parole officer. Ben's narrative floats between Abel's recent troubles at integration, his own recalled encounters with Pony, and Milly's story. He eventually shifts to recalling Abel's hands being bruised by Martinez. Unlike Ben and most people, Abel didn't cower before Martinez.

Ben recalls Abel seeing "that white woman," and he tries to make sense of just what it was that Abel couldn't adjust to. Drunk one night, Abel goes out to find Martinez, and he's severely beaten and missing for three days. Ben calls the ambulance. He also calls the white woman (Angela St. John), who arrives and thanks him. She talks to Abel, and she tells him of her child and a story she tells the boy. That story is of a maiden and a bear.

Then Ben recalls telling Abel the Night Chant, and then he softly sings it to him.

The Dawn Runner: Walatowa, 1952

Abel is back at his grandfather's house where his grandfather is dying. Abel waits. For six consecutive mornings, Francisco speaks, saying random words, meaningless to Abel. But what follows, in italic font, appears to be a rendering of the thoughts that accompany Francisco's words. It is his memories from childhood and adulthood, much like Abel's recollections in the first section of the book. Francisco hunts a bear. He meets and romances a woman called Porcingula. They conceive a child who dies. He recalls being a grandfather, and he remembers drumming.

After his grandfather's death, Abel wraps and dresses the body. He goes to see the priest and tells him, "You must bury him." And then he leaves and he starts running. "There was no reason to run but the running itself and the land and the dawn appearing." He runs up the road. "He was running, and under his breath he began to sing."

House Made of Dawn Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Abel returns from the war to New Mexico.

Rising Action

2 Abel meets and works for Angela St. John.

3 Juan Reyes beats Abel with a rooster.

4 Abel kills Juan Reyes.

5 Abel is released from prison.

6 Abel attacks Martinez and loses.


7 Abel returns home to New Mexico.

Falling Action

8 Abel's grandfather dies.


9 Abel runs at dawn and sings.

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