Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Hardcover, 336 pages. Published August 25th 2020 by Ecco

Buy it here: Bookshop, Amazon


A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 

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.

Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.


Most of my reading is geared toward horror and small presses, so picking up “Winter Counts” was kind of me reading something that was not in my normal TBR pile. My reward for going passed my boundaries and reading this novel was tremendous. Part thriller, part mystery, part nonfiction narrative on what it is like to live on the Lakota tribe reservation, this is a story that wraps you up and will not let you go until the final page. I had 100 pages left to read the other night, and I had gotten three hours of sleep, wrestled kids, made dinner, cleaned up, and put the kids to bed. I was tired, but I thought I would read as few pages before I passed out from exhaustion. This book was one of the first books that has ever kept me awake to finish. I read the rest and promptly passed out. Now days later, I have had some time to think about the finish of this novel, and I can say that this climax is one of the best ones I have read in a long time.

Virgil Wounded Horse is a local enforcer, a person that is hired by private citizens who want a job done that the police will ignore. He is raising his nephew Nathan, and when Nathan gets into trouble, he is the one who has to figure out how to get them both out of it. There are a ton of great, strongly drawn characters. It is weird when you can pretty much name every single character in a novel days after you read it, but there’s Marie, Lark, Ben and his wife Ann, Tommy (Virgil’s friend), Rick Crow, and Dennis. I’m sure that I’ve missed a few, like Delia Kills in Water, but to be able to go through a list of almost all of the major and minor characters days after reading it also does not happen very often. This novel really leaves a mark.

I could also get into the injustice that the native tribes have endured and still endure, but we already know this. We know that every tribe was killed for their land, their traditions, religions, and culture eradicated, and their history whitewashed. “Winter Counts” is a pretty accurate description of the current state of life on the reservation. There are not long passages that bog down the action, but there is a fine balance between the story and the information. I feel like I left this novel, not only with a good story but with some new knowledge. This is one of those books that should be read for the plot but is worth more than the story.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected, and I cannot recommend this enough. I think that there are some new Native American voices in literature that need to be heard, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden is one of those voices. 


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