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