I have no real idea what to say about a book like this. It’s an experience, that’s for sure. If you’ve read any of the other Seven Dreams books by William Vollmann you can probably guess some of the things that go in this one. Usually there’s a storyteller figure, here called William the Blind, who acts as a kind of guide through the various stories. Here that means someone who can be in the future of the narrative, looking at the American Northwest and seeing the fallout and consequences of the Indian policies that came after this story. It also means that he can be there in the Army detachments, witnessing the conversations between the various figures, specifically and namely Oliver Otis Howard, a former Civil war Union general, now in charge of a dispatch of US soldiers tracking and dealing with the Nez Perce under Chief Joseph. The narrator/storyteller can also then be within the Nez Perce band as well. The two different perspectives are generally told in two different ways (but with long, winding novels like this one, there’s no set rule). In the army grouping, the storytelling is told mostly through dialogue and conversation, whereas in the Nez Perce sections, it’s told more in a third person oral history type narration.
One of the forgotten elements (not by historians but by the general public) deals with the fallout of the Civil War. While people are awakening in general to the idea that Reconstruction was purposely undercut and weakened through massive white resistance within the Southern states, purposely disenfranchising Black citizens in the South, the question as to why the US government was so forgiven to Southern officers. For one, Lincoln always maintained that the goal of the war was to reforge the Union, so a forgiving attitude made sense. But it’s important to remember that Grant and Sherman well knew that the next phase of American expansion would involve taking the West from the various Native American groups across that gigantic territory, and even before the war was over, they were making plans to enlist Southern soldiers in the campaign.
This novel takes on just one of those campaigns, against the Nez Perce. The novel is a lot to take on and fairly overwhelming to think much about, so much as to be within it.