William T. Vollmann’s magisterial novel “The Dying Grass” tells the story of the Nez Perce War of 1877 and its dismal aftermath. Vollmann will discuss his book Tuesday, Aug. 11, at the Seattle Public Library.
“The Dying Grass”
by William T. Vollmann
Viking, 1,376 pp., $55
“The Dying Grass,” the 23rd title by the famously prolific William T. Vollmann, is the fifth entry in his “Seven Dreams,” a cycle of novels centering on encounters between Europeans and Native Americans that stretches all the way back to early Viking settlements in North America. A monumental act of literary manifest destiny that sets out to recreate the Nez Perce War of 1877, “The Dying Grass” is nothing less than brilliant.
The events depicted will be familiar to many here in the Northwest. Hemmed in and estranged from their ancestral homelands in the Wallowa Valley through a succession of broken treaties, amid increasingly violent confrontations with fresh waves of white settlers lured to the area by rumors of gold, a number of previously “friendly” Nez Perce bands take up arms against the U.S. Army with initial success.
In the months that follow the Nez Perce hold their own in battles and skirmishes along an epic retreat of 1,200 miles in a forlorn quest for allies or asylum. They finally surrender on Oct. 5, 1877, just 40 miles shy of Canada, across whose border Lakota chief Sitting Bull fled after the defeat of Gen. Custer in the previous year. Instead of freedom, the captive remnants of the Nez Perce are shipped to swampy bottomland at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and from there to a reservation in Oklahoma.
William T. Vollmann
The author of “The Dying Grass” will appear in conversation with David Wright at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).
Such accounts of perfidy and betrayal are commonplace in American history, but in Vollmann’s inventive telling these events are rendered with an unstinting detail and vigorous immediacy that feels startling and new. Swept along in streams of dialogue interspersed with vivid descriptive passages that call to mind the invention of Melville and the poetry of Whitman, the reader bears witness to the chaotic melee of pitched battle, the weariness of dogged pursuit, and the irreducible complexity of a conflict between utterly alien peoples confronting two very different destinies: infinite rolling horizons of opportunity, and irresistible waves of ignominy and doom.
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Charged with containing and subduing the Indians, staunch abolitionist Gen. Otis Howard (founder of Howard University) struggles with his conscience. He is roundly mocked by his troops for his compassion as well as his military shortcomings. Likewise, Chief Joseph finds himself unable to restrain more warlike chiefs and fighters, whose desperate heroics seal their fate. The cast of players in this Homeric account is vast and diverse, ranging from scouts and squaws to sitting presidents, and animated by a variety of hopes, fears, hatreds, ambitions and longings.
Vollmann’s unconventional typography, with its indented threads and chunks of text, might seem tricky at first, but soon reveals itself as an aid to comprehension. Freed from quotation marks and pronouns, the reader swiftly weaves and darts through layers of speech, subtext and digression.
Likewise, Vollmann’s authorial alter-ego William The Blind, featured in all of his Dreams, may seem an affectation at first, until one sees how useful this device is in shuttling the reader through space and time, while imbuing the narrative’s immediacy with haunting glimpses of historical perspective.
Readers given pause by the book’s sheer size should know that the most remarkable thing about this novel is not how long it is, but how good it is. Far from reducing complicated human events into a tidy cathartic package, Vollmann succeeds in making history — in both the doing and the telling — feel more complex, profound and mysterious than we’ve come to expect.
Not long after his defeat, Chief Joseph gave a speech in Washington, D.C., pleading for his people’s freedom, in which he famously said “ … it does not require many words to speak the truth.” As Vollmann’s masterpiece shows us, sometimes it does.