In the introduction to this long, intricate, often cryptic historical novel, William T. Vollmann writes:
This book is the story of how the Black-Gowns [Jesuit missionaries] and the Iroquois between them conquered the Huron people. With its weight of antecedents and obscurities, as I admit, the tale is an ungainly one.…”
That is a pretty good capsule description of Fathers and Crows, a rambling narrative accompanied by an introduction, glossaries, and other reference material.
Although most of the principal characters are actual historical figures, the author has inserted imaginary characters to flesh out his scenes. He has also traveled backward and forward in time, going as far into the past as a.D. 30 and as far forward as 1989.
Vollmann himself calls his work a “dream.” It is part of a projected series of novels about the conquest of North America by Europeans that will carry the omnibus title of Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes. The first volume in this series was The Ice-Shirt (1990), a much shorter but no less impressionistic book that covered the arrival of the Vikings in North America in the tenth century.
Vollmann, a young writer, has amazed critics with his literary talents and his passionate dedication to his craft. Fathers and Crows contains exhaustive reference material showing how deeply he has immersed himself in the period he is attempting to re-create. He persists in calling himself “William the Blind,” and this cognomen may refer to the effects of all the research he has already done along with all that still lies ahead of him before he completes his monumental task.
What attracted the French to Canada was the apparently inexhaustible wealth of animal furs, especially beaver furs, which were much in demand in Europe to be made into hats. The fur trappers were followed by soldiers, and the soldiers by missionaries. The foremost soldier-explorer in Canadian history was Samuel de Champlain, who founded the city of Quebec and courageously ventured as far west as the Great Lakes in quest of a route to China. He is the most interesting character in the book, and this may be because he was motivated not by greed but by humane consideration for the native inhabitants as well as a dedication to the enrichment of human knowledge through exploration.
Unfortunately for the Native Americans, the fur trade also attracted the British and the Dutch. They began pitting the various indigenous tribes against one another and against their European competitors. At first, the Europeans were understandably cautious about providing the Native Americans with guns; later, however, the Iroquois obtained large quantities of guns and ammunition from the Dutch, with disastrous results for Native Americans and Europeans alike.
The main highway of exploration and exploitation was the mighty St. Lawrence River. As the omnibus title of Vollmann’s work suggests, he loves natural beauty; his descriptions of American landscapes are perhaps more appealing than his descriptions of the people who inhabited them. Champlain followed the St. Lawrence to the Huron country, bordering what is now known as Lake Huron. His reports on the wealth of furs available in this virgin territory incited the greed of traders, because the existing supply of animals was being devastated by uncontrolled extermination.
There apparently was no understanding whatever of such matters as the ecological balance of nature or environmental protection. Canada seemed like an endless forest full of animal wealth. Champlain himself believed that it stretched all the way to China. Greedy European investors demanded maximum returns on their investments, not unlike many corporate shareholders of the late twentieth century. Fur trading was big business. Vollmann details the quantities of cheap trade goods brought in and beaver furs taken across the Atlantic in the sailing ships that required several months to make the hazardous crossing.
Champlain and a Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brébeuf are the only two char- acters in the entire book who are developed fully by the author; the others, whether they are real or imaginary people, make only cameo appearances. Fathers and Crows was not conceived or executed as a conventional historical novel such as the popular Black Robe by Brian Moore, published in 1985 and brought out as a motion picture in 1991. Moore’s book focuses on a single fictitious character, a Jesuit priest, who has a single motive, which is to travel up the St. Lawrence River in...