Mental Floss
BOOKS

7 Fascinating Facts About N. Scott Momaday’s ‘House Made of Dawn’

Kerry Wolfe
The cover of 'House Made of Dawn.'
The cover of 'House Made of Dawn.' / HarperCollins (book cover), James Mato (background)
facebooktwitterreddit

N. Scott Momaday’s 1968 novel House Made of Dawn follows Abel, who, after serving in World War II, returns to his reservation and struggles to reacclimate to his traditional way of life. Realizing he is no longer at home on the reservation, a world grounded in spirituality and a sense of connection with the land, Abel sets off for Los Angeles. Only after spending years away—and experiencing a series of mishaps and mistakes—does Abel finally realize where he truly belongs. Here’s what you should know about Momaday’s award-winning work.

1. N. Scott Momaday’s real-life experiences influenced House Made of Dawn.

Kiowa oral traditions run deep throughout Momaday’s work. But folklore wasn’t the only aspect of his identity that influenced his critically acclaimed novel: The writer slipped in details from his own life while building the narrative. The book is set in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, the very same community where Momaday spent his teen years while his parents taught on the reservation. 

Momaday’s protagonist, Abel, may be a fictional character, but aspects of his identity and experiences were borne from reality. Momaday created him as a composite of people he knew during his time in Jemez Pueblo, and his actions represent the problems of real-life people who, like Abel, grappled with issues of identity and how to reintegrate into their communities after being uprooted to fight overseas. The protagonist also reflects aspects of Momaday’s own history—he, too, grew up straddling two worlds.

2. House Made of Dawn was originally a series of poems. 

Momaday considers himself a poet, not a novelist. As he told an interviewer, he thinks of House Made of Dawn as an aberration, a deviation from his poetic norm—he didn’t intend for the story to become his debut novel. When he began working on House Made of Dawn, he first conceived of it as a cycle of poems while pursuing his doctorate at Stanford, where he focused his dissertation on poetry. After spending several years immersed in verse, he sought a new challenge and turned his attention toward fiction. The inkling of an idea for House Made of Dawn then morphed into a series of short stories before finally evolving into the novel that exists today. 

Though the tale changed shape, it still maintains pieces of its poetic foundation. The prose is more lyrical than linear, and each sentence is crafted with a cadence that reflects the writer’s literary roots.

3. Momaday was surprised by House Made of Dawn’s success. 

Non-Indigenous critics may have had a tough time fully understanding the elements of Native American culture braided throughout the novel, but that didn’t stop House Made of Dawn from garnering a fair amount of praise [PDF] once it arrived on the literary scene. 

Still, Momaday was surprised by the book’s reception. When his editor called to tell him his novel had just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, he thought she was kidding—after all, even his own publisher struggled to recall the book. 

4. N. Scott Momaday was the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

When House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to earn the prestigious award. In 2021, Louise Erdrich (whose 2008 book The Plague of Doves was a Pulitzer finalist) became the second-ever Native American to earn the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Night Watchman.

5. House Made of Dawn was a breakthrough for Native American literature.

House Made of Dawn did more than startle its author with one of the writing world’s top honors. Around the same time House Made of Dawn made its debut, other Native American writers were finding success among mainstream readers, too. Native Americans had published a wide variety of work in the English language, including novels, since at least the 18th century. But it wasn’t until after House Made of Dawn’s historic Pulitzer win that a robust market for Indigenous authors really opened up. Decades later, Momaday is still an inspiration for numerous Native American writers.  

6. House Made of Dawn is connected to N. Scott Momaday’s other works.

Eagle-eyed Momaday readers will notice that one of the sermons in House Made of Dawn is in the intro to his 1969 book The Way to Rainy Mountain. The author often ties his work together like this. As he said in a 1983 interview, “I think of what I do as telling one story; it’s long, and I can’t get it all into one book. So what I do is I write a chapter at a time, as it were, and I publish it as a book. But it’s all one story.”

7. There’s a movie based on House Made of Dawn.

An independent film based on the book, directed by Richardson Morse and starring Larry Littlebird as Abel, was released in 1972; Momaday helped write the screenplay. But though the novel it’s based on became a success, the film couldn’t find a distributor and remained obscure for decades; even scholars struggled to track down copies. As Morse, the film's non-Native director, said in 2005, it was “quite totally unseen for damn near 30 years.” (Even today, the film is tough to track down, though some libraries do stock copies.) Still, Momaday himself said he was happy the House Made of Dawn film exists, though he admitted he was disappointed with the acting, which he called “not particularly distinguished.”

facebooktwitterreddit