Sean Noland has second thoughts as he bumps his way through rutted, poorly marked terrain on the vast Navajo Reservation.
When his car breaks down and he is forced to depend on a dignified but expressionless elder to get him to the mission school where he has agreed to teach, he becomes nervously intrigued. Then he is told he will not be teaching English after all, but P.E. He will be the basketball coach and the dormitory counselor. He also will serve as head of the school in the bureaucratic principal's absence – which will be frequent. When he finds out one-third of the students enrolled are learning disabled, he is appalled. The first staff member he gets to know explains why: there is lead in the school's drinking water. Leonard Santos has been trying to get the data from the last inspection, and seeks Sean's help, because Sean will have keys to the office files. This becomes a challenge Sean can't resist.
The heart of the story is the colleagues' desperate hunt for two runaway students during a snowstorm at Thanksgiving. The boys are not the first who decide to go home to be with their families. Family life on the reservation is preferable to the molding they get at the government school. But family life can be complicated and painful, and even dangerous. The men recognize the volatile situation they are likely to face if they even get through the storm and find the boys alive. Sean gets a gentle though harrowing lesson in avoiding hypothermia. He and Leonard form a bond.
There are secondary plots that are timely. One is the impression local people have of gentle Leonard, who is suspected of being a child-molesting homosexual. The other questions the motivations of teachers who choose a remote and generally unrewarding appointment. Much is revealed about the cultural behavior and habits of the Navajo people, their suspicious regard for outsiders, especially federal agents. I have lived in Arizona for 45 years, have a Navajo friend, and have attended a wedding ceremony in a traditional Hogan, and yet there are things explained by this author that I would never have known.
Winetsky, who started his teaching career with disadvantaged seventh graders in Los Angeles in 1968, and has since taught in several western states, has used his own experience to make a credible story that is emotionally engaging and also intellectually and politically provocative. He is generous in attributing his knowledge of the subject of Navajo life and education to others (including his wife, a special education teacher). His own contributions are a respectful recognition of the anxiety that still exists between conqueror and native, realistic dialogue, and beautifully descriptive prose.