William T. Vollmann’s striking new novel, The Dying Grass, chronicles the shameful events of the Nez Perce War of 1877, when the United States Army tried to prevent several bands of Native Americans from fleeing to Canada after miners and settlers encroached on tribal lands in the Northwest, in blatant violation of an earlier treaty.
Much of the tale—and it’s a long one, north of 1,200 pages—is told from the perspective of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who led the campaign.
Howard personifies a troublesome wrinkle in American history: the near-simultaneous fights to emancipate slaves and obliterate Native Americans. Unlike many of his fellow bluecoats, Howard was fiercely opposed to slavery; in fact, he founded Howard University, a black college, in Washington, D.C., in 1867.
Vollmann uses Howard’s memoirs to create internal dialogues that show him wrestling with the injustice of American Indian policy. Howard was acutely aware of the fact that settlers were willfully encroaching on treaty land in the Wallowa Valley. He sees his government as terrorizing the Nez Perce people: “He feels for them, of course. He disapproves not only of our national Indian policy, but also of Wallowa’s heedless seizures.”
Yet he still leads the campaign against the Nez Perce and several other Indian tribes. Why? Howard himself struggles with the question: He’s a soldier; he needs the money; he’s proud to serve his country. When all else fails, he reasons that “Washington has given instructions, and there must be an end.”
Howard is a tragic figure whose self-deception becomes painfully obvious as the long march carries on. In him, Vollmann finds a clear historical allegory for America at large—a nation keenly aware of its principles even as it fails to live up to them.
Vollmann is notorious for writing tomes that are overly long, but something must be said for the book’s word-to-word beauty. He has a tendency to fall into near-verse when describing a scene. Early in the novel, he flashes forward to his own visit to Chief Joseph’s grave on the Colville Indian Reservation near Nesplelem, Wash., where the surviving members of Joseph’s band were eventually placed, years after their surrender. Standing in the cemetery, Vollman forms something like a High Plains haiku from a simple inscription on another gravestone:
My precious little girl
June 5 2004
Oct 6 2004
“— my heart is good;
my heart is grass;
graves in the gravel and golden grass.”
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War
By William T. Vollmann
1,376 pages, $55