Crime and Punishment on the Rosebud: David Weiden’s Winter Counts

August 18, 2021

A photograph of David Weiden juxtaposed with the cover to his book Winter Counts

A dizzying debut with something to say and a story to tell, David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts (Ecco, 2020) takes crime novel conventions and recasts them in a fresh, uniquely Native context. Named after the pictorial calendars of Lakota tradition, Winter Counts is narrated in the voice of vigilante-for-hire Virgil Wounded Horse as he is recruited by reservation higher-ups to investigate a local drug conspiracy. Though Virgil is initially reluctant to take on the job, his quest quickly becomes personal when related crime hits too close to home. For the sake of his nephew, Virgil must navigate an increasingly treacherous legal landscape while dodging death and keeping personal and political demons at bay.

In addition to Virgil, the cast of Winter Counts features Tommy, his sweet, sci-fi-loving nephew; Marie Sitting Bear, a traditionalist, aspiring doctor and welcome presence in a predominantly male cast; and the standout setting of South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, which transcends standard crime novel backdrop fare to assume a role all its own.

From Virgil, readers quickly learn that crime and punishment work differently on the reservation, where federal legislation complicates local law enforcement. Information about the broken criminal justice system and political pitfalls of reservation life is woven organically into the narrative, as are elements of the protagonists’ Native culture. Weiden draws upon his own heritage and experiences as a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, former practitioner of law, and professor of political science to convey and identify the conflicts and harsh legal realities of Virgil’s world with biting authenticity.

Though threaded with social critique, Winter Counts is more than an informative call-to-arms: it’s an excellent mystery-thriller. The pacing is masterfully manipulated, hooking the reader and bringing them along for the ride, slowing in the second act, and building to a breakneck pace for the third. It’s engrossing, informative, and juggles emotional resonance and breathtaking violence with deft depth. Virgil doesn’t pull his punches, and neither does Weiden, giving the reader an upfront view of the grim realities of reservation politics and the ongoing failure of the federal government to curtail a long-ignored “open season” on crime, while using Virgil’s encounters to prompt consideration of the cycles of abuse perpetuated by a system skewed heavily against Native sovereignty.

Winter Counts is a multilayered demand for justice and deals out insight as readily as it does rapid-fire advancement of the plot.

From mishandled murder investigations to biased med school applications, Winter Counts is a multilayered demand for justice and deals out insight as readily as it does rapid-fire advancement of the plot, without making sacrifices to either side. It is the story of one man’s fight against the crime that threatens his home, but it’s also about community, family, faith, history, healing, and navigating the difference between right and wrong when the line’s been blurred by systems above. It’s straightforward, compellingly characterized, and an enthralling read. Anyone interested in modern crime thrillers, the tricky politics of reservation law enforcement, or legally ambiguous antiheros with hearts of gold will enjoy Winter Counts, which redefines the constraints of the crime thriller genre and leaves readers with memorable characters, political insight, and a gripping, edge-of-your-seat story to boot.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Brenna O’Hara graduated from the University of Oklahoma with degrees in English and biochemistry in 2020. She enjoys reading, volunteering, and playing in musical ensembles in her spare time. She is currently pursuing her MA in English at OU and can be found interning at World Literature Today.