When residents of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota feel that villains have slipped through the cracks of law enforcement justice, they call Virgil Wounded Horse to dish out violent vigilante retribution.
In David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s novel “Winter Counts,” a tribal official hires Virgil to investigate who is smuggling heroin into the reservation and put a stop to it. Virgil hesitates to take the job … until his teenage nephew, whom he’s raising as his own son, overdoses. Then Virgil sets off with a vengeance.
Life on this reservation is grim—few jobs, poverty, racism, sexual assault, drinking, drugs, corruption, folks dying too young. It’s an uphill battle for those working to improve the community, like Virgil, in his brutal way, or Virgil’s off-again-on-again girlfriend Marie Short Bear, who’s torn between her desire to help people on the reservation and an opportunity to leave to become a doctor.
Weiden, a Denver lawyer and professor who’s an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota, draws on his own background to root his crime thriller in contemporary indigenous lived reality. His mother grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. And the book is illuminating on the injustices left by legal holes between local indigenous authority and federal law enforcement, which often ignores the reservation.
It’s a compelling beginning, and a promising milieu in which to set what looks to be a series. But unfortunately, many of the novel’s characters don’t develop much beyond pulp stereotypes—the vigilante detective, the girlfriend with a heart of gold, the troubled teen who gets in over his head. Virgil’s investigation leads him to uncover a conspiracy—but the twist, when it arrives, feels too easily revealed as one villain confesses all.
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