An Epic Continued: William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass

The fifth in Vollmann’s Seven Dreams cycle offers a polyphonic saga of the tragic war between the Nez Percé and the U.S. Army.

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann

The Dying Grass. By William T. Vollmann. 2015. 1,376p. illus. Viking, $55 (9780670015986).

Vollmann’s Seven Dreams, an epic sequence of novels about the European colonizing of North America, has been compared to Moby-Dick, Wagner’s Ring cycle, and the big novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. But Vollmann attains his own form of monumentality by virtue of assiduous research and compassionate imagination.

Seven Dreams begins with the arrival of the Norse Greenlanders in The Ice Shirt (1990). In Fathers and Crows (1992), French Jesuits attempt to convert the Huron Nation. The Rifles (1994) dramatizes British explorer Sir John Franklin’s legendary Arctic expedition. Argall (2001) purports to be “The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.” In The Dying Grass, the fifth “dream,” Vollmann takes on the plangent complexities of the 1877 war between the Nez Percé and the U.S. Army. Initially triumphant, the Nez Percé are forced to retreat, fighting all the way. They cover some 1,200 miles, desperately crossing Montana and nearly reaching the Canadian border. To understand the magnitude and significance of this grim journey, Vollmann followed in the footsteps of the Nez Percé and traversed the vast historical record. The result is a colossal, ravishingly descriptive, adeptly omniscient novel in which each page correlates to a mile of loss.

In the tense, avidly realized opening scenes, as the Nez Percé and white officials attempt to forge treaties, Vollmann considers with foreshadowing resonance the pitfalls of translation, not only of language but also of worldviews and faith. Talks break down after the arrest of the outspoken elder Toohoolhoolzote, who bluntly “declines to grant the Government in Washington the right to think for the Indians.” The Nez Percé leaders sense that fighting the whites is futile, but the younger generation refuses to be corralled like animals in a “small place.”

The grass is dying; so, too, the Nez Percé way of life.

The enormous cast gradually comes into focus. Vollmann insightfully portrays the war’s most famous and revered figure, Chief Joseph, but he gives more space and weight to lesser-known individuals, including the chief’s wives, Good Woman and Springtime, and his beloved, courageous young daughter, Sound of Running Feet. The pivotal character is General Oliver Otis Howard, the presiding officer, a Civil War vet who lost an arm, who cherishes his family, and who tries to live up to his abolitionist values and always do the right thing. (The men mock him as “Goody-Goody Howard.”) But he is also impatient, arrogant, obdurate, and capable of the worst hypocrisy, betrayal, and revenge. Long volleys of dialogue zigzag across the page like high-voltage epic poetry, interrupted by stretches of inner monologue. Stories and lies are told, observations made, gossip shared, love expressed, rage articulated. Official documents, letters, and diaries are worked into this panoramic collage of landscape, consciousness, violent conflict, racism, rapaciousness, heroism, and grief. The battle scenes are visceral and riveting. The camp scenes are rendered with tenderly intimate detail as the women erect shelter, collect water, gather and prepare food, mend, braid, care for the young and aged, the sick and injured. Vollmann foregrounds these ordinary and precious aspects of life, which persist even in war. Here, too, are the complications of ambition, jealousy, conscience, duty, and profound conundrums. Whose side is God on? Which God? Are we not all human? Are some of us more human than others? The grass is dying; so, too, the Nez Percé way of life.

Vollmann’s rampaging, reflective, absurd, ironic, tragic, and poetic epic is supported by a painstakingly compiled chronology, glossaries, and copious notes. Yet for all this documentation, this is a work of grand invention, creative empathy, and holistic interpretation. The Dying Grass is mammoth, and many may find it forbidding. Yet this virtuoso, polyphonic saga of invasion, resistance, forced exodus, and conquest flows, whirls, and mesmerizes with riverine dynamics, and it is as large, encompassing, and deeply felt as it needs to be to do justice to its momentous subject.

This review first appeared in the June 1 & 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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