Virgil Wounded Horse is a man living tentatively between two worlds. On the one hand, he feels an obligation to his Lakota upbringing. On the other, the tragic deaths of his mother and sister have caused him to drift away from this heritage. But when his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan, nearly dies after a heroin overdose, Virgil’s loyalties are put to the test. A recovering alcoholic, Virgil vows to protect his family and his tribe as best he can by seeking out those bringing the drugs into his community and exacting his revenge.
The police are no help on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, so it falls to men like Virgil to mete out the tribe’s own brand of justice when necessary. When the trail leads off reservation, however, and into the purview of the FBI, Virgil’s hands are tied. The only way around it may be by allowing the Feds to use Nathan as a confidential informant in a pair of drug buys, or else Virgil may see his nephew imprisoned in an adult institution for distribution of narcotics.
Virgil’s quest for justice is further complicated when he is reunited with his former girlfriend, Marie, who still embraces much of their heritage. The daughter of Ben Short Bear, who is running for tribal president, she is torn by the opportunity to attend medical school off campus, which could mean leaving the reservation and Virgil behind.
On the surface, David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel, Winter Counts, is somewhat typical for its genre: Bad guys disrupt the status quo when they muscle into the community, pushing bad drugs on an unsuspecting and highly susceptible teen population, until a vigilante or detective pushes back. The difference here is the setting on the Lakota reservation, the clash of policies between the U.S. government and Native American life, and the internal conflicts of the novel’s main characters.
Weiden, who is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, elevates an otherwise routine crime novel with Native American culture and traditions, political differences and organized crime. His well-rendered, emotionally charged characters do the rest.