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Fathers and Crows.

Towards the end of William T. Vollmann's The Ice-Shirt - the first of seven installments in his "symbolic history" of North America, Seven Dreams - the Micmac Indian chief Carrying the War-Club picks up an iron ax left by a dead Norseman, and, after turning the weapon upon one of his rivals, throws it into the sea. It's an odd moment, climatic even, and it resonates with the weight of premonition. Iron, after all, was what seventeenth-century Europeans used to barter and batter America's native populations into submission, making Carrying the War-Club's gesture one of defiance towards the 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 how those descendants were corrupted, not only by iron but by the men who offered it in what they first took as the spirit of friendship, only to discover that this assumption was dangerously wrong. Opening at the dawn of the 1600s, five hundred years after The Ice-shirt it examines the French settlement of Canada, and the conversion of the Indians by the Jesuits. But despite Vollmann's detailed research - his source notes fill forty-eight pages, and there are seventy-two 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 which 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 imagination, an imagination that in this case appears to know no bounds.

Vollmann, of course, has always been a prodigious talent. But in Seven Dreams - and especially Fathers and Crows - he's stepped things up by daring to re-invent 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. And by casting himself as the storyteller William the Blind, whose ironic asides and autobiographical revelations are constant reminders of his subjectivity, Vollmann weaves this subversion into the fabric of his fiction, undercutting our sense of history as fixed, and presenting it as a sequence of interpreted events whose meaning is relative, depending on how it is viewed.

It's an effective device, because so many of Vollmann's characters are absolutists, from the French Catholics with their fear of Jesus, to the "Savages" who must appease the ghosts and spirits that clamor for blood and supplication. There's Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec and an early cartographer of the Canadian wilderness, whose desire for order is the driving force in his life. Or Manitousiou, the Montagnais shaman who fought with the French Pere Le Jeune for the souls of his people, only to be burned alive by his relatives in the winter of 1633. Vollmann portrays these people with multi-dimensional motivations, 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 give his scenes more than one perspective. As a result, he pulls off the neat trick of being compassionate towards all sides while embracing the complexity of this story - 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. Instead Fathers and Crows is full of the horrors of the frontier, as committed by Indian and French alike. Often, the two cultures seem to resemble each other in their brutality, as when Champlain orders a traitor's head to be displayed on the walls of Quebec, an action mirrored later by the Mohawk Indians, who do the same 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 present-day Canada - a country still torn by the dichotomies he presents - and it's articulated most clearly by a friend who tells him that "In each Canadien Francais there is a little bit of Savage.... Our identity is here. "

Such comments are instructive, for it's undeniable that in the imposition of French values on the Indians, a hybrid culture was created, unlike anything before. Vollmann seems to find its embodiment in Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois woman baptized in 1676 and now a candidate for sainthood. But Kateri is really a minor figure in Fathers and Crows, born well after the basic action has taken place. A more accurate symbol is 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 power of second sight: Throughout the final third of the book, they are the major characters, and their unwilling attraction for each other - an attraction equal parts physical and spiritual, and with which they both struggle to come to terms - is the vehicle for Vollmann's concept of consolidation. For although Brebeuf never converts Born Underwater, and she never convinces him that her way is also true, they ultimately come to some kind of middle ground, a mutual, if grudging, respect.

It's a respect Vollmann seems to share, not just for Brebeuf and Born Underwater, but for 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." But ungainly though it may be, it is a tale 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.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Ulin, David L.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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