Words on War: Native American Tragedies
I like big books as much as anyone, but I have always been intimidated by the work of William T. Vollmann. A few years ago I tried to read his novel of southern California, Imperial, and after 200 pages or so I just gave up.
So I was not expecting to love The Dying Grass, but as I began to read it, it taught me a lesson – sometimes a challenging book is worth the trouble. I believe The Dying Grass hooked me because it is about one of our great national tragedies – the wars waged against Native Americans that drove them from their homelands, all over the country.
The story told in The Dying Grass is that of the Nez Perce Indians, a Pacific Northwest tribe whose members were considered “good” Indians until they were finally driven beyond their limit by land and gold-hungry settlers and the U.S. government’s betrayal. It’s one of many tragic stories from the nation’s campaign to subdue and remove Native Americans from their home grounds, and it’s only one of several books Vollmann has written on the subject.
But before I get to my Vollmann list I want to mention a couple of other books about the era of the Indian wars that are well worth checking out.
The first is Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.
This gripping nonfiction book is by S.C. Gwynne, a Texas journalist. It’s the saga of Quanah Parker, the half-white, half-Indian son of a woman kidnapped by the Comanches in 1836 during their reign of terror over the Texas plains.
Quanah Parker became the Comanche’s leader and led his tribe into the white man’s era with his dignity intact – he was both a consummate warrior and in the final analysis, a gifted peacemaker. “Empire” is unsentimental in its portrayal of the brutality dispensed by both sides in the Indian wars, but it vividly recreates the sights, smells and heartbreak of a long-ago era.
Another is Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn. This book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in history. Fenn is a scholar, not a riveting storyteller like Gwynne, but it’s well worth the attention it demands. She goes back all the way to prehistoric times to trace the history of the Mandan people. This book will help you remember that Native Americans occupied our continent for thousands of years before white people showed up, and how quickly many tribes were brought to near-extinction, before experiencing something of a renaissance in our current era.
When Fenn won the Pulitzer, she had this to say:
“I do not take 1492 as the starting point of American history; I don’t accept 1492 as the starting point of American history. American history begins with the people who occupied the continent. Throughout most of our past, those people were indigenous peoples, and their history is our history.”
Back to William T. Vollmann, who also has a deep and abiding interest in encounters between Whites and Native Americans in North America. The Dying Grass is not his only book on this subject – indeed, he’s published four others, five total in his planned “Seven Dreams” series.
These books, all novels, tell stories that range from the Norse Conquest of Greenland, to the 19th century quest to find a Northwest Passage, to the Nez Pierce Wars. They are all trademark Vollmann: they use an enormous trove of source documents, they recreate and re-interpret real events, and they use first-person reportage in the form of Vollmann’s enduring “William the Blind” character or some other avatar of the author. They all received a mixed reception from critics.
The first was 1990’s The Ice Shirt. It’s set in the 10th century and chronicles the arrival of the Norse People in Greenland, Vinland (North America) and the Arctic, and their encounters with the natives, including the Mi’kmaq and the Inuit. It draws heavily on a 14th century Icelandic saga, and has not just glossaries, secondary texts and other trademark Vollmann material, but some of his own drawings; ancient Icelandic plants, maps, and a self portrait.
1992’s Fathers and Crows focuses on encounters and conflicts between Jesuit missionaries and the Huron and Iroquois people of North America in the 17th century. This is ground gone over by another novelist we have had on Well READ, Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda. Fathers and Crows features 869 pages of footnote , map and drawing-studded text, plus six glossaries, a chronology, a source list and acknowledgments . William the Blind is the narrator. It provoked the most consistent criticism of Vollmann’s books; that his imagination, his storytelling abilities and his passionate attachment to the lives of the people he is chronicling are almost swamped by his insistence on cramming his books with historical references and long digressions.
1994’s The Rifles is about Sir John Franklin’s doomed attempt in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific, coupled with Vollmann’s own experiences among the 1990s Inuit(19th-20th century). William the Blind took a vacation; Vollmann’s own stand-in was a guy named Captain Subzero, who followed in Franklin’s footsteps.
2001’s Argall is about the settlement of Jamestown, Pocahontas and John Smith, and was written partly in flowery Elizabethan language that, shall I say, put reviewers off their feed. One reviewer, Jay Parini in the New York Times, wrote that “I found myself amused at many points, and generally awed by Vollmann’s mad energy.” By page 442, he was no quite so amused.
By now you probably have decided, one way or another, whether you want to try out William T. Vollmann. If you are still with us, you might want to consider starting with perhaps his most acclaimed novel, 2005’s Europe Central. He tells the story of World War II through the eyes of several different characters, from the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to Hitler himself. Vollmann’s portrayal of both political fanaticism and brave resistance helps illuminate how this most horrific chapter in human history could have happened.