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William T. Vollmann: Fathers and Crows

The second in Vollmann’s Seven Dreams saga is set five hundred years after the first, focusing on the arrival of the French in what is now Canada. Once again, Vollmann’s views are laid out early in the book. The book is dedicated to all Canadians, past and present but against all dogmatists and their armies. Once again we are given detailed notes, maps, a glossary and acknowledgements, showing that Vollmann has done his homework and that, at least in part, his work is historical. I stress in part because, as the dedication shows, Vollmann has his own views on the events described in this novel and he is going to make sure we know what they are.

The novel is narrated by William the Blind and tells of the Black-Gowns, i.e. the Jesuits, who set about converting the Native Americans in seventeenth century North America. However, before he gets there, William gives us a brief (over 400 pages) introduction to the French colonisation of North America and gives us a rich cast of characters, from the famous (Samuel de Champlain and Jean de Brébeuf who Vollmann has wearing an iron girdle to mortify himself) to the fictitious, namely Born Underwater, a half-breed woman, the result of the rape of her mother, Born Swimming, by a Frenchman, Robert Pontgravé. Born Underwater clings to the values of her mother and, like her mother, has the gift of clairvoyance. The relationship between Brébeuf and Born Underwater, grudging respect, even if diametrically opposed politically, is symbolic of the Black-Gowns-Native Americans antagonism.

But ultimately, Vollmann is out to show us the harm and devastation by the European incursion and this he does effectively. Maybe his account is too long – did we really need such a detailed biography of Ignatius de Loyola? – and maybe nearly 1000 pages is too much, but Vollmann is not going to let us miss out on any of the fascinating details of this account and, as always, he tells an interesting story very well.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Viking