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William T. Vollmann: The Ice-Shirt

This is the first in the seven-part Seven Dreams sequence (both the first to be published and the first chronologically; some of the other ones will be published out of sequence), telling the history of North America. This one focuses on the tenth century and the arrival of the Norse to North America and Greenland. Vollmann has clearly done his homework. There are notes, a glossary, maps, drawings and acknowledgements. He has consulted sagas, tales of journeys and various learned works. If we are to believe the Vinland legends – and there now seems to be archeological evidence for them – then the Vikings were in America 500 years before Columbus. Vollmann tells this story.

Of course, Vollmann has shown us in You Bright and Risen Angels that the white man in North America is not a good thing and he continues this theme here. The Europeans both in Greenland and, later, in Vinland (which may or may not be modern New England) are out to cheat the natives and this they do. But not only do they cheat the natives, they are responsible for the lowering of the temperature which happened in North America at this time, bringing the ice-shirt. There has been a lot of discussion about the”truth” of this novel. Of course, this cannot be resolved. Vollmann himself, in his preface, says the novel is a pack of lies but, given that our sources are the Icelandic sagas, themselves undoubtedly unreliable, we cannot get at the historical truth. Of course, Vollmann is writing a novel and his truth is not historical truth but to give a perspective, namely the harmful influence of the white man’s arrival in North America and this he does very well.

The background of the internal struggles in Norway that lead to the Viking explorations as well as the story of Eirik the Red’s illegitimate daughter, Freydis Eiriksdottir, who is the one who wears the ice-shirt and who ties in with characters from both Norse and Inuit legend, are both gripping tales. This clash continues to the present day as we even get a journalistic report from Vollmann about the Inuits and their dealings with present-day Danes. Vollmann tells a superb story about cultural imperialism which, of course, continues to the present day and his post-modern, magic realism approach only makes it an even more fascinating tale.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Atheneum