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.
What I’d discovered was that sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good—it changes a little over the years, but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.
3.5 stars, rounded up.
There’s a lot of pain and frustration in this story, unfortunately, too much of it grounded in reality. It’s a unique perspective that I haven’t read before and I think it’s an important read for those, like myself, who are unaware of the realities of life on reservations and the hardships and prejudices affecting the crime (and conviction) rate in these communities.
Winter Counts addresses two sides affecting the crime rate on reservations. The first problem, discussed from the first page of the book, is the right that federal investigators have to accept or decline prosecution of felony crimes on reservations. This leaves many cases dropped, even if the perpetrator has been caught, letting many criminals free to continue committing crimes and giving criminals the confidence to repeat actions which haven’t forced any consequences. One way the people on these reservations try to enact their own justice is through vigilante enforcers, like Virgil Wounded Horse, the main character in this book. On the other side, when Indigenous Americans (or for that matter, Indigenous People around the world) are arrested and convicted of crimes, they are incarcerated at higher rates for harsher sentences than their white American counterparts. I found it impressive that Winter Counts was able to comment on both sides here with this story.
I did find the mystery/thriller/crime aspect of this book to be fairly predictable but I think it’s worth the read for Virgil’s narrative alone. His perspective is unlike any I’ve read before and I appreciated the beauty of his culture and his experience. The author writes a stark commentary on the hardships of his life but emphasised the importance of his culture, his community, and their traditions. This story is very character-driven and it thrives in this light.
I highly recommend Winter Counts for anyone, like myself, who is fairly sheltered in their privilege. It’s important to read new and different perspectives to keep us from becoming trapped in our own world and belief system, afraid of anyone who may think or act differently from ourselves. And any time this new perspective can shine a light on the shortcomings of our society and our laws, it helps to create change in the right direction.