The Dy­ing Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War by Wil­liam T. Voll­mann, Vik­ing, 1,356 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Casey Sanchez

Even in an era when many Amer­i­cans be­lieved In­di­ans to be sav­age im­ped­i­ments to U.S. ex­pan­sion, the 1877 war be­tween the Nez Perce and the U.S. Army had lots of cit­i­zens root­ing for the tribe. To fight their re­moval to an Idaho reser­va­tion, the Nez Perce re­volted, seek­ing refuge in Canada. Over four months be­gin­ning in June, sev­eral bands of the Nez Perce and an al­lied band of Palouse fled their home­land in the Wal­lowa Val­ley of East­ern Ore­gon and con­ducted a fight­ing re­treat across a 1,200 mile stretch of Idaho and Mon­tana, fend­ing off more than 2,000 U.S. sol­diers and thrilling chron­i­clers of the cam­paign with their com­mand­ing skill on horse­back.

But the Army was not the sole force pur­su­ing the Nez Perce. Hired Lakota and Cheyenne agents aided U.S. forces in hunt­ing down the tribe. Only a year ear­lier, sev­eral war­riors from th­ese same tribes had bat­tled the Army, killing Gen. Ge­orge Arm­strong Custer at Lit­tle Bighorn in an at­tack led by Crazy Horse and Sit­ting Bull. Now safely en­sconced in Canada, Sit­ting Bull would fur­ther en­rage the feds by promis­ing safe refuge to any Nez Perce who joined him in Canada. Trag­i­cally, the Nez Perce never made it, sur­ren­der­ing just 40 miles south of the north­ern border in Oc­to­ber. Most of the tribe’s lead­er­ship had been killed, its women and chil­dren left to face win­ter with­out blan­kets or food. “I will fight no more for­ever,” Chief Joseph pro­claimed in a po­etic trans­lated speech, per­haps the only frag­mented mem­ory of this war that’s widely re­mem­bered to­day.

It’s an epic and deeply tan­gled history that au­thor Wil­liam T. Voll­mann seeks to re­an­i­mate in this his­tor­i­cal novel. It is the fifth vol­ume in the au­thor’s Seven Dreams: A Book of North Amer­i­can Land­scapes, a se­ries of what will be seven nov­els dra­ma­tiz­ing en­coun­ters be­tween in­dige­nous tribes and Euro­peans in North Amer­ica. The writer in­au­gu­rated the col­lec­tion in 1990 with the release of The Ice-Shirt, a reimag­in­ing of the Vik­ings’ ar­rival in ninth-cen­tury North Amer­ica. (The

Cloud-Shirt, his pro­posed fi­nale to the Seven Dreams se­ries, aims to trace the bit­ter land dis­putes be­tween Navajo and Hopi in the 20th cen­tury South­west.)

Voll­man’s ca­pac­ity to in­habit the voices of char­ac­ters from other eras and cul­tures is as pre­cise as it is dizzy­ing. Largely writ­ten in di­a­logue and first-per­son mono­logues, the novel con­tains a sprawl­ing list of char­ac­ters in­clud­ing Joseph (Hein­mot Tooy­alakekt), Army Bri­gadier Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, and Nez Perce war chiefs Toohool­hool­zote, White Bird, Look­ing Glass, and Ol­lokot, Joseph’s younger brother. The au­thor is keenly sen­si­tive to the way wives raise fam­i­lies and shape their hus­bands’ views in wartime, when per­haps only fam­ily can be rightly trusted. Howard’s wife, Lizzie, plays a large role in this nar­ra­tive, as do Joseph’s wives Good Woman and Springtime.

The book’s many pages even leave room for a mono­logue by Pres­i­dent Ruther­ford B. Hayes, as well as Voll­man, who in­serts him­self into the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion as the wob­bly nar­ra­tor, Wil­liam the Blind. To purist read­ers who de­mand strict ac­cu­racy, Voll­man has said

else­where that his Seven Dreams nov­els are “sym­bolic his­to­ries” de­signed to reen­act the nar­ra­tives of North Amer­i­can history over the past thou­sand years. But his eru­dite skill as a re­searcher is on am­ple dis­play here. The book’s sev­eral glos­saries, ap­pen­dices, and ad­den­dums, which span more than a hun­dred pages, are a joy to read in their own right, far more thor­ough and ac­ces­si­ble than the work of most his­to­ri­ans work­ing in the same vein.

The Dy­ing Grass’ many bat­tle scenes are as grotesque as they are beau­ti­fully ren­dered. Voll­man, af­ter all, did write the seven-vol­ume Ris­ing Up, Ris­ing Down, a sweep­ing 3,300-page in­quiry into our his­tor­i­cal mo­tives and jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for violence, built on years of the au­thor’s dis­patches from Cam­bo­dia, So­ma­lia, and Iraq. But if there’s a pre­vi­ously un­ex­plored an­gle on the Nez Perce War that the au­thor really plumbs, it would be the con­flict’s spir­i­tual di­men­sions.

In Voll­man’s retelling, Howard is a deeply re­luc­tant an­tag­o­nist: His Chris­tian con­science un­der­stands that the cam­paign against the Nez Perce is bar­baric, but his mil­i­tary obli­ga­tions de­mand that he pursue the tribe at full throt­tle. Along­side Howard’s spir­i­tual con­flicts, Voll­man art­fully re­con­structs the Nez Perce jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for pur­su­ing war against the U.S. Army: If the tribe ac­cepted its per­ma­nent re­moval to an Idaho reser­va­tion, its mem­bers would also for­ever sever them­selves from their gods and spir­i­tual rit­u­als.

In Nez Perce re­li­gious tra­di­tion, ado­les­cents would head into the wild on a jour­ney to find and foster a life­long re­la­tion­ship with a wyakin, a spir­i­tual force that could be found in an­i­mals or plants or even cer­tain rock for­ma­tions. Wyakins pro­tected a per­son in times of dan­ger. In a pas­sage that could serve as a coda for the book, Voll­man cap­tures a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween a Nez Perce fa­ther and his young son over how re­moval to the painted land — a reser­va­tion — might for­ever al­ter their re­la­tion­ship with th­ese spir­i­tual guides.

Sound of Run­ning Feet asks him: Fa­ther, where did you go to meet your WYAKIN? Far­away Moun­tain. Is that on our painted land? No. Then where shall I go? Next sum­mer I’ll be old enough — I can­not tell you. Per­haps that is all fin­ished now.

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