The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War

  • By William T. Vollmann
  • Viking
  • 1,376 pp.
  • Reviewed by Nathan Blanchard
  • August 4, 2015

William T. Vollmann writes long books. Very long books. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, clocks in at 635 pages. Since then, he’s churned out over two-dozen works that span such subjects as prostitution, poverty, travel, and war. He was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2003 for his 3,298-page nonfiction study of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He won the National Book Award in 2005 for his 832-page novel, Europe Central.

And for the past 25 years, he’s been working on a projected seven-volume series, Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, which “examines the repeated collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers.” Each volume focuses on a different period of the American continent, fusing historical facts with fictional untruths to create a “Symbolic History,” narrated by Vollmann’s persona, William the Blind.

The Dying Grass, the colossal 1,376-page fifth installment of Seven Dreams, covers the Nez Perce War of 1877, and mainly focuses on its opposing leaders: General Oliver Otis Howard of the United States Army and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. Using a unique format in which the space on the page represents emotional and physical distance, Vollmann crafts a stunning, melancholy, and polyphonic tome of a pivotal moment in our history.

When the United States violates the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla by forcing the removal of the Nez Perce from their ancestral lands to an Indian reservation, several bands of Nez Perce engage in armed resistance. The ensuing skirmishes cause these “non-treaty” Nez Perce to flee Northeast Oregon and seek help from other tribes, eventually heading for Canada. Led by Howard, the U.S. Army pursues the Nez Perce for 1,170 miles, with further battles along the way, finally ending at Bear’s Paw when Chief Joseph gives his famous surrender speech.

Vollmann navigates a multiplicity of voices from all facets of the war, with soldiers from both armies full of hatred and doubt. The parallels between the white soldiers and Native Americans are most striking in the author’s depiction of General Howard and Chief Joseph, also known as Cut Arm and Heinmot Tooyalakekt, respectively.

They both prefer peace and nonviolence over needless killing, and eventually both lose their soldiers’ respect because of these compassionate sensibilities. They contemplate their familial and romantic ties: Howard with his wife, Lizzie; Chief Joseph with his two wives, Good Woman and Springtime, and his brother Ollokot.

Both men also seek guidance from memories of their fathers and, through interactions with their children — Howard’s son, Lieutenant Guy Howard, and Chief Joseph’s daughter, Sound of Running Feet — during the military campaign, strive to preserve a sense of dignity in the face of death.

As the chase progresses, the characters struggle against depleted resources, the natural world, and their own growing doubts, with Second Lieutenant C.E.S. Wood narrating the most directly antiwar passages, contrasting with the headstrong, trigger-happy soldiers around him. The tone of the novel grows sorrowful as the death toll increases and Chief Joseph and Looking-Glass realize the inevitability of loss.

Meanwhile, Howard struggles with his own moral dilemmas as his country’s policies challenge his altruistic and religious principles. He’s just one of many characters who make compromises and allowances for atrocities. The interiority of these contradicting perspectives reveals the nuances of people at war and how the forces of history compel individuals to forsake their most cherished values.

Many sections of The Dying Grass consist of lengthy passages of unattributed dialogue, snappy and wonderfully idiomatic, but Vollmann’s prose shines most noticeably when describing the physical landscape of the Pacific Northwest: “Cloudburst gazes at the trail, riding, riding, through the wriggling grooves between swales where creeks hide themselves under long worms of willow-clumps, then down into the sagebrush swales whose hearts are white sand, while Fair Land’s baby son whimpers in the jolting cradleboard, drowning out the bubbling allurement of a male sage grouse.”

Vollmann deftly juxtaposes descriptions of nature with those of abrupt violence, never flinching at aggression or allowing the heightened language to falter. The battle of Big Hole is particularly engrossing; the sentences seem to gallop, simultaneously catching glimpses of horror and beauty: “Now here comes the first Bluecoat, apparently caged between the dark rake-leaves of angelica. Holding his breath, Two Moons draws the trigger inward, toward his heart, and red teeth explode from the soldier’s face.”

The rapid-fire dialogue-heavy passages mixed with the precise descriptions of nature and violence read like a cross between William Gaddis’ J R and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

For The Dying Grass, Vollmann uses indentations to represent spatial and emotional distance. In an interview with the Atlantic, he explains his invented format: “You don’t read this book like other books: instead, as you read from left to right, the page works like a stage. The left-hand part of the page works like the forefront of the stage, and the right edge of the paper is the backdrop.”

Surprisingly, these visual alterations do not burden the pace of reading, but instead accelerate the action and deepen its emotional resonance. After a couple hundred pages, readers will develop an instinct for the form.

For those who aren’t familiar with the history of the Nez Perce War, Vollmann provides over a hundred pages of glossaries, notes, and sources to keep readers grounded through this complicated epic. His vast research alone is impressive enough to warrant praise, but it’s his lush sentences and beautiful rendition of human drama which make The Dying Grass an unforgettable, singular experience.

Nathan Blanchard’s writing has appeared in decomP, Atticus Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

comments powered by Disqus