On American Indian reservations, where felony crimes are often not prosecuted by the federal authorities, tribal members resort to their own justice in the form of hired vigilantes. Virgil Wounded Horse is one of those vigilantes on the Rosebud Reservation in North Dakota, where he is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. When Virgil is approached by Ben Short Bear, a tribal councilman, to take down some drug dealers selling heroin on the reservation, he is initially reluctant – but then his nephew Nathan nearly overdoses on their product and Virgil decides to take the case. His ex-girlfriend, Marie, joins him on the hunt for the dealers, angering her father, who happens to be Ben Short Bear. As the two follow the drug trail down to Denver and back again, they discover some ugly truths about what’s been happening on their reservation.
Winter Counts is a plot-driven page-turner, with plenty of action and some nasty criminals. Virgil reminded me a bit of Jack Reacher, but with family ties and a community to protect. What makes the story stand out is its backdrop of life on an Indian reservation. Weiden is blunt about the poverty and racism Native Americans face, but he also presents the beauty and uniqueness of the Lakota culture, from indigenous cuisine to traditional religious ceremonies. Virgil’s journey to find the drug dealers is multi-layered: he’s tracking down criminals, but he’s also on a journey to find himself and his place within the culture of his ancestors. This is a terrific thriller: gripping, gritty, and multi-layered.