Wednesday, August 5, 2015

William T. Vollmann's "The Dying Grass": Book Review

At about a page a mile, this epic doggedly charts the forced retreat of the Nez Perce during more than 1300 miles and seventy-five days in 1877. Under General Oliver Otis (or as his weary "Bluecoats" in "Indian Service" call him, "Uh-Oh") Howard, the U.S. Army pursued those members of the tribe who refused pacification and Christianization on the reservation. They reject the "thief treaty" and despise relegation to the "painted land." They vow to resist Cut Arm, as they call Howard, and his troops. In the fifth installment of his Seven Dreams series dramatizing encounters between native and settler peoples in North America, William T. Vollmann speaks in more than the narrative voice of his own witness, "William the Blind." After all, hundreds of characters populate his lively tale, alternating between Bluecoats, the People as they call themselves, and the Bostons, their name for the whites who settle, eliminating one nation for a larger, rapacious one. There is never enough land to share among them. The empire pushes westward, without pause.

Two soldiers reason it out. "They expect to roam wherever they please, living on buffalo and what not. That means nobody can farm there. It's got to be them or us." Their foe cannot remain there.

Vollmann in previous volumes in this series, which he started over a quarter-century ago, has explored crucial initial contacts in this transformation of the continent over more than a millennium. He began with the Norse and natives in today's Maritime Provinces. He followed with dramatizations of the clashes between the peoples of Virginia and John Smith's Jamestown colonists, between French Jesuits and the warring nations of Canada, and between the First Nations of the Arctic and those traders past and present, who exploit resources of the Far North. All incorporate meticulous research.

In each novel, he blends his own stance as "William the Blind" with diligent attention to the historical record. In The Dying Grass, he expands this archival fidelity deftly. Much of the dialogue and many of the thoughts attributed to his characters are integrated from a wide array of sources. Vollmann therefore makes our history as Americans come alive. You never feel when reading this Seven Dreams series that figures are propped up as talking mannequins. Vollmann masters his process: he makes his characters sound like us (if properly bound to their time, place, limitations, and idioms).

The manner this verisimilitude emerges in this latest volume deserves acclaim. Vollmann innovates. He pushes the space on the page. The deeper we get into a character's mind, the farther right we shift. Dialogue, free of quotation marks or any dashes, begins on the left. Interruptions external or internal drift, and then interior monologues or asides embed themselves further as the reader wanders towards the center of the book, the right margin. That margin is always unpredictable, for it falls down, near the gutter of the spine, until it stops and the reader returns to the left again, and more dialogue begins.

These conversations take us into the petty details on each side of the conflict. Soldiers bicker, boast, and bitch. Native women mock those who pursue them, and defend their men, for as Dreamers they unite around their tradition, and they defy those among them and beyond them who brandish the Bible, the "Book of Light" as the authority who replaces their "Wyakin" for guidance. Over it all, the purple mountains and pink sunsets continue, apart from those feuding and fighting far below. Vollmann draws us in to these conflicts, by masterfully drawn battle re-creations that show his talent for sudden action, a theme he has not been able to expand upon in many of past novels as he can here.

Homeric may be an overused adjective, but in the catalogs of warriors, soldiers, and their women, repeated in the solemn cadenced tone of the People or the dutifully diplomatic reports submitted by their persecutors, this term serves as a worthy comparison for this fictional account taken from factual inspiration. A bit shorter than Tolstoy's novel on war obliterating peace, The Dying Grass depicts how everyday people get swept up into tragedy, forced to choose sides as the enemy comes.

Although the fate of the Nez Perce under the man we know as Chief Joseph is a foregone conclusion, what is lesser known, and therefore animates tension, is the evasion some of the Nez Perce manage. They flee across the Medicine Line, as they call it, into the Old Woman's Country, that of Canada. But their enemy Sitting Bull has established his own redoubt already. Soon the Nez Perce must file back across the border. There they are rounded up and sent off to the Hot Land of Kansas. They sell themselves as chattel to the clutches of a white man, or their trinkets and photos to souvenir seekers.

Never romanticizing either side, Vollmann remains alert to the nuances of violence. The Bannocks who follow the Bluecoats, and later the Crows, also revenge themselves on the Nez Perce. They in turn, while innocent of the charges cast on them by the U.S. Government, may choose to murder innocent Bostons. Their pleas, no less than those of the People whose women and children may be roasted alive in the heat of battle or the coldness of calculation by Bluecoats, may find only cruel listeners. Mercies are shown to scattered enemies, but as in any war, these may be outnumbered by vengeance. Orders on both sides attempt but fail to prevent looting, desecration, and grave robbing.

These gaps between a relentless force who must have the natives' land, who must violate the terms of the treaty that gave that remnant to the Nez Perce, and who will not let their beleaguered people cross into Canada widen. On the other side, the Dreamers dwindle, and no home for them remains at all. They try to talk to the Bluecoats and the Bostons, but among both contenders, those out for profit and for land-grabbing take charge. The Nez Perce, outnumbered and facing their own tribal enemies now allied with the Government, can neither find rescue in the Montana wilderness nor Canadian camps. The mechanized nature of the Government, after the debacles of the Civil War, now rolls over any opposition within the ranks. Cut Arm and his Bluecoats serve a master back East, not their own will.

Vollmann fairly, as with Howard, shows the complexity of these negotiations. The General, who lost an arm in the "Secession" War, had run the Freedmen's Bureau for former slaves afterwards. His generosity founded the university that bears his surname, but his reputation as one too sympathetic to the blacks and then the Indians, in the eyes of many watching in Washington D.C., follows Howard. By the end, as the Nez Perce are shipped to the Northwest after their Indian Territory exile, they look in calico, drab colors, and shawls as colorless and bland as the freed slaves had to General Howard.

Depravity haunts many in Federal uniform. It also implicates some of those in the garb of the newcomer, and some of those who must don that garb. As converts under coercion, the Dreamers must accept the Book of Light, or be cast off to an even more dilapidated reservation with Chief Joseph, lest they contaminate their Americanized and Bible-toting former brethren. Disease, hunger, and heartbreak reduce the ranks of the defiant Dreamers. Nearly three-quarters of their reservation is soon sold as "surplus land" to Bostons. The children of the People, once Dreamers dwindle, are taught the ways of their conquerors at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Vollmann notes as of twenty years ago how fewer than three dozen Nez Perce had kept any fluency in their old language.

Throughout, key interpreters such as Umatilla Jim and Ad Chapman are called on to intervene; the surrender speech attributed to Chief Joseph barely registers here, within the cross-chatter and interference between the victors and their vanquished. Lieutenant Wood, an intriguingly sympathetic listener to the plight of those whom he pursues, polishes up Joseph's words for pomp and posterity.

Out of faded tintypes, military memoirs, charts and news clippings, ethnographies and museum artifacts, Vollmann retells one of the most famous, and infamous, struggles between the invading and the indigenous peoples of the Old West. This demands concentration. After a couple of hundred pages, such is its sprawl, the reader learns to read as Vollmann wants. The tiny print represents the spirit of those who, overwhelmed by the spaces they seek to survive within and thrive wherein, try to speak, think, and dream, as they survive or succumb within its intricate, dense plot. This novel tests patience, but true to Vollmann's unrelenting craft, the author insists that every word he publishes deserves to be left as it is, defying editors or us. The Dying Grass resists satisfactory replication in this format, with our margins that corral and tame its inventive prose on a open-ended page. Like the unfenced West, his novel roams freely, evading control of the mechanical hand and conforming style.
(Amazon US 7-28-15; PopMatters 8-10-15)

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