I read the book in about four sittings; it’s Vollmann’s crack at the Pocahontas story. It’s also one of his Seven Dreams, seven books that undertake to re-envision the encounters between Native American and European cultures that underpin our current culture here in North America.
The Ice Shirt relates the tale of the Viking settlement at l’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland; The Rifles is about the encounter between the northern peoples of Canada and the twentieth century around 1900 via the story of the ill fated Franklin expedition (it should be noted that Vollmanns’ treatment of the expedition prefigures but inverts the publishing industry’s embrace of the later Shackleton expedition); and Fathers and Crows tells the story of the mission to the native peoples along the St Lawrence waterway by French Jesuits and the resultant sainthood of the only Native American saint, the Iroquois St. Catherine Tekakwitha (which also has a counterpart in the mass media, the beautiful film Black Robe, a very different work, but lovely to look at and very useful for it’s meticulous visualizations of the pace and time).
I recommend all of these books, but my favorites to date are Argall and Black Robe. I intend a full-scale review of Argall, but, erhm, later.
Vollmann’s work is unique. He’s a very post-modern writer, injecting a first person authorial voice into the work at whim, incorporating drawings and personal reminiscence into the fabric of the novels. Despite this he is unafraid of the traditional projection of the writers’ voice into his characters, and I swear, with each book his control of the language become more assured.
There’s a tension in his work, most clearly seen in the books he’s published that are not a part of Seven Dreams, between his moral repugnance and personal fascination with what I can only term squalor. This boundary between repulsion and fascination is where, for example, fetish sexuality lies, but Vollmann’s adoption of the boundary as the prime element in his work is, in my opinion, in most cases not sexual in nature. Even when he’s writing about sex and sexuality, it’s neither porn nor erotica, for me at least.
In Seven Dreams, this fascination takes on an added dimension, in that he assumes a demonstrable truth: the Native peoples he is imagining as well as the European persons who frequently left greater amounts of first-person documentation behind each had systems of moral behavior and considered their actions in relation to it.
The preponderance of the narratives we’re exposed to in American primary and secondary educational institutions and in the popular culture emphasize the savagery of one or another of the events, depicting the actions as originating with either an evil sense of values or none.
Vollmann’s efforts provide the opportunity to see how, in conflict, morality is simply lost, and at the same time how as humans our differing value systems may simply be impervious to reconciliation.
I do not know what further Dreams Bill intends to bring forth, but it seems likely that the conquest of Mexico is likely, and the defeat of the Indians of the plains may be another. In the case of Mexico particularly, it’s not possible, I think, to imagine a greater conflict of values.