Fire and Ice : FATHERS AND CROWS, <i> By William T. Vollmann (Viking: $30; 990 pp.)</i>
Toward the end of William T. Vollmann’s 1990 novel “The Ice-Shirt"--the first installment in his ambitious and far-reaching seven-part “symbolic history” of North America, “Seven Dreams"--a Micmac Indian chief named Carrying the War-Club picks up an iron ax left behind by a dead Norseman and, after turning the weapon viciously upon one of his tribal rivals, throws it into the sea. It’s an odd moment, climactic even, and it resonates with the weight of premonition. Iron, after all, was the instrument 17th-Century European colonialists used both to barter and to battle America’s native populations into submission, making Carrying the War-Club’s rejection of the ax a gesture of defiance toward the dual forces of time and culture, forces against which his descendants were ultimately unable to hold the line.
“Fathers and Crows,” the second volume of the “Seven Dreams” cycle, tells the story of those descendants and how they were corrupted, not only by the iron that, unlike Carrying the War-Club, they were moved to accept, but also by the men who offered it in what they first took as the spirit of friendship, only to discover later that this assumption had been dangerously wrong.
Opening at the dawn of the 1600s, 500 years after “The Ice-Shirt,” it examines the French settlement of Canada, and the conversion of the local Indians by the Jesuits. But despite Vollmann’s detailed research--his source notes for the novel fill 48 pages alone, and there are an additional 72 pages of glossaries, chronologies, and acknowledgments as well--"Fathers and Crows” is no mere historical novel trying to recreate the past. Rather, it is “an account of origins and metamorphoses that is often untrue, based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth"--or, like all great fiction, a reflection of its author’s unique and startling imagination, an imagination that in this case appears to know no bounds.
Vollmann, of course, has been known as a prodigious and daring talent ever since his first novel, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” was published in 1987. But in “Seven Dreams"--and especially in “Father and Crows,” where the facts are more familiar to us than those of “The Ice-Shirt"--he’s stepped things up a notch by daring to reinvent his material, a subversive act that strikes directly at all the received notions we have about how things got to be the way they are.
That impulse is inherent in the way Vollmann calls his book a dream, the way he exhorts his readers to “Dream harder!” and to “pray this Dream.” And by casting himself as the storyteller William The Blind--"nearsightedness being the disease of many a clairvoyante” --whose presence, in the form of ironic asides and autobiographical revelations, is a constant reminder of his subjectivity, Vollmann weaves this subversion into the fabric of his fiction, undercutting our sense of history as somehow fixed, and presenting it as a sequence of interpreted events whose meaning is relative, depending on the cultural prejudices with which it is viewed.
That’s an effective device, precisely because so many of Vollmann’s characters in these pages are social and philosophical absolutists, from the French Catholics with their fear of Jesus to the “savages” who must appease the ghosts and spirits that lurk everywhere, hungry for blood and supplication.
There’s Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec and an early cartographer of the Canadian wilderness--a pompous man, but likable nonetheless, whose desire for order and definition is the driving force in his life. Or Manitouisiou, the Montagnais shaman who fought with the French Recollect Pere Le Jeune for the souls of this people, only to be burned alive by his relatives in the winter of 1633.
Vollmann portrays these people in flesh and blood, with multidimensional motivations that are good and bad, and he highlights the distinctions between them by using different narrative voices, one for the French and one for the “savages,” sampling liberally from both languages to explicate his scenes from more than one perspective. As a result, he pulls off the neat trick of being compassionate toward all sides while embracing the complexity of the story he is telling, the story of what happens when two inimical and powerful paradigms of the world come together in the same place and time.
For all his compassion, however, Vollmann never veers into sentimentality; there are no paeans here to the “nobel savage,” nor to the holy man of God. Instead, “Fathers and Crows” is full of the horrors of the frontier, as committed by everyone, Indian and French alike. Thus, while the Huron or the Iroquois may roast their enemies slowly on an open fire, eating the hearts of the bravest warriors to give them strength, the French are seen as no better, executing heretics and enemies of the state.
Often, the two cultures even seem to resemble each other in their brutality, as when the French commander Champlain orders the head of a traitor to be displayed upon the fortress walls of Quebec until it rots, an action mirrored much later by the Mohawk Indians, who do the same thing in their own village with the head of Pere Isaac Jogues, the first Jesuit martyr of New France. This commonality is emphasized by Vollmann’s periodic forays into the Canada of the present day--a country still torn by the dichotomies he presents--and it’s articulated most clearly by two of his French-Canadian friends, who tell him that “In each Canadien Francais there is a little bit of Savage. . . . Our identity is here.”
Such comments are instructive, for it is undeniable that in the imposition of French values on the Indians, a new culture was created, a hybrid, unlike anything that had come before. Vollmann seems to find its embodiment in the form of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois woman who was baptized in 1676 and is now a candidate for sainthood, having been pious to the point of mortification during her lifetime. But despite the author’s infatuation, Kateri is really a minor figure in “Fathers and Crows,” born well after the basic action has taken place.
A far more accurate symbol exists in the relationship between the Black-Gown (now Saint) Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary martyred in 1649, and Born Underwater, a half-breed woman with the gift of secondsight. Throughout the final third of the book, they are the major characters, and their unwilling attraction to each other--an attraction that is equal parts physical and spiritual, and with which they both must struggle to come to terms--is the vehicle for Vollmann’s concept of consolidation. For although Brebeuf never does succeed in converting Born Underwater, and she, for her part, never manages to convince him that her way is also true, they ultimately come to some kind of middle ground, a mutual respect that borders on love.
It’s a respect that Vollmann seems to share, not just for Brebeuf and Born Underwater but also for most of his other characters, and even his readers, to whom he makes no concessions. As he says at the outset, “With its weight of antecedents and obscurities, as I admit, the tale is an ungainly one” and, at 990 pages, “Fathers and Crows” is a difficult book, minutely detailed and densely written, flowing lush and heavy like--to borrow Vollmann’s central metaphor here--the “Stream of Time.”
But it is a novel that is worth every word, a work of such elegant structure and uncompromising intelligence that it will change the way you think about the opening of the New World--indeed, the way you think about all of history, and what it means.