Fathers and Crows

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

Although William T. Vollman is only thirty-two, he has already published six books and attracted a great deal of favorable critical attention. FATHERS AND CROWS is almost a thousand pages long and represents only one-seventh of an ambitious project to write a dramatized history of North America.

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In THE ICE-SHIRT, the first volume of a series that goes under the omnibus title of SEVEN DREAMS: A BOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN LANDSCAPES, Vollman described the colonization of Iceland and Greenland by Vikings in the tenth century. Now he leaps forward six hundred years to describe the history of New France.

At first the Native Americans welcomed the French, who brought marvelous manufactured articles to trade for furs. The Micmac, Algonquin, Huron, Iroquois, and other Indians especially valued iron in the form of kettles, knives, hatchets, arrowheads, and other tools. Gradually, however, the “Savages” grew hostile as they realized that the “Iron People” were following a pattern of conquest that included pitting tribe against tribe and attempting to impose on them an incomprehensible Judaeo-Christian religion.

When the Jesuit missionaries began to arrive in New France, they aroused greater animosity because of their uncompromising attitude toward what they regarded as pagan superstitions. Unfortunately, the arrival of the “Black Gowns” coincided with the outbreak of smallpox epidemics, devastating native populations who had no inherited antibodies to resist the foreign pathogens. Between 1634 and 1640, the Huron tribes lost half their population, making it easy for the Iroquois to destroy the remainder.

Many Jesuits were blamed for sorcery and were tortured and killed with incredible cruelty. Vollmann’s descriptions are heartrending and shocking. His impressionistic narrative travels freely up and down what he calls “the river of time.” At the end, he reflects on contemporary political and social conditions in Canada, with the animosities that exist between Native Americans, French Canadians, and the dominant Anglo culture.

FATHERS AND CROWS is an intimidating book, with twenty-two pages of introduction and more than one hundred pages of appended reference material. It has a huge cast of characters, most of whom are real historical figures such as the famous explorer and colonizer Samuel de Champlain. The book has little in the way of plot; it does not read like a conventional historical novel but more like a dramatized or “colorized” historical panorama written by a New Journalist. It will appeal mainly to readers who are strongly interested in this period of North American history.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 35.

Chicago Tribune. July 26, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

Library Journal. CXVII, August, 1992, p. 153.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 23, 1992, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 6, 1992, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, July 13, 1992, p. 36.

Time. CXL, August 31, 1992, p. 69.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1992, p. 21.

USA Today. August 13, 1992, p. D4.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, August 2, 1992, p. 1.

Fathers and Crows

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1893

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 order to reach two of his colleagues in the Huron country.

In contrast, Vollmann’s Fathers and Crows is broken up into myriad fragments, almost like the bits of stained glass in a cathedral window. The text is not evenly divided into chapters but composed of innumerable short sections, some of which are less than a page long. At one point, Vollmann interrupts his disjointed narrative to present a forty-three-page biography of Saint Ignatius de Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. This quixotic arrangement suggests a lack of planning or perhaps even some sort of neurosis. It has led one critic to complain: “The hundreds of pages of historical background included to bulk up the narrative subvert rather than enhance this novel of faith, desire and the tragedy of spiritual imperialism.”

William the Blind often talks about the “Stream of Time” as an entity on which he and the reader can travel backward and forward at a much greater rate of speed. The effect of his repeated and deliberate violations of Aristotle’s unities of time, place, and action is to destroy the book as a novel. The reader may get caught up in a dramatic episode and experience the illusion of being in another world; however, the illusion is sure to be dispelled by an abrupt change of scene or by one of the author’s many intrusive interjections, of which the following is a typical example:

She admitted that she’d considered herself an eternity of times as the cruelest of mothers, but begged him to remember that life was short, so that soon she would be reunited with him forever to rejoice in the glory OF GOD. (As a matter of fact, she had another quarter-century left to live.)

Here is another example of a kind of self-conscious intrusion that seems deliberately intended to jar the reader out of the illusion that the conventional historical novelist tries so hard to create: “But the Iroquois would have their revenge in 1649, reader; just be patient and you will see!”

Vollmann himself apparently regards his work as a “dream” about history. All this probably means is that he has read a lot of history books and documents and has imagined what the reality must have been like. It might most accurately be described as a dramatized or “colorized” panorama of history. This is what makes the book appealing and at the same time vexatious. Vollmann is more imaginative and poetic than the typical historian but less disciplined and less reliable. If it were not for Vollmann’s undeniable gift with language, the book would hardly be worth reading, because it is not fact and not fiction.

The Hurons were anxious to trade furs for European manufactured goods. Vollmann’s graphic narrative is useful in helping the reader understand the motivations of the various groups involved. Iron and copper cooking utensils made life much easier for the Native Americans (whom the French always referred to as “the Savages”). Prior to the introduction of these metals, the standard means of cooking soups and stews consisted of dropping heated rocks into scooped-out wooden containers. Iron arrowheads were also far more effective than stone ones in killing animals and human beings. Steel knives were much better than sharpened clam shells for slicing food, skinning animal carcasses, and cutting off the fingers of captured enemies.

A large part of Fathers and Crows has to do with the deadly rivalries among the various native peoples. The most ferocious and most feared group was the Iroquois confederation, made up of the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga nations. Their archenemies were the Hurons. Long before the arrival of the Europeans, Iroquois and Hurons had been conducting a bloody feud. Typically, invaders from one side would carry off captives, whom they would kill with fiendish torture. Women and children would take part in these festivities and contribute their own creativity to making the prisoners suffer as much and as long as possible. Naturally the other side would feel compelled to retaliate, and this had been going on since time immemorial.

The arrival of the Europeans gave the Iroquois and Hurons greater incentive to kill one another, not that they really seemed to need it. Now they were competing to exchange their furs for manufactured goods. The Hurons had an advantage because they were closer to the original trading posts; however, other trading posts operated by Dutch and English entrepreneurs complicated the situation. The French and English were wary about providing Native Americans with guns; the Dutch, however, had no qualms about doing so because they evidently did not believe they had any chance of establishing permanent colonies in this part of the New World.

When the Iroquois obtained large quantities of guns and ammunition, the balance of power among the Native Americans was destroyed. Iroquois killed Hurons faster than the Jesuits could baptize them. The biggest killer, however, was not the Iroquois but the microscopic smallpox virus, against which the native inhabitants had no genetic resistance. Father Brebeuf and the other Jesuit missionaries exploited the terror aroused by the recurring epidemics to win converts to Catholicism.

The Jesuits’ interest in death and the afterlife won them the reputation of being evil sorcerers. When the Iroquois finally captured Father Brebeuf, they had a gala time baptizing him with boiling water, cutting strips from his flesh and devouring them, broiling him with a collar of red-hot iron axeheads, and finally putting him out of his misery with their tomahawks after torturing him for more than fifteen hours. Foremost among his tormentors were Native Americans he had converted to Christianity.

Half the population of the Huron confederacy was wiped out by epidemics between 1634 and 1640. The confederacy was totally destroyed and the survivors dispersed by the Iroquois between 1649 and 1650. This represents the end of Vollmann’s main story, although he travels forward on his Stream of Time to describe present-day Canada and the conflicts that exist among the Native Americans, the French Canadians, and the dominant Anglo culture.

No one can deny that William T. Vollmann is a remarkable writer. He has a wisdom beyond his years and a genius for description. In addition to possessing the talents of a gifted creative writer, Vollmann has the passion for research of a dedicated scholar. He reminds the reader of the Jesuits themselves in his single-minded dedication to his craft. Fathers and Crows is an impressive work that evokes feelings of pity and terror, even though the reader might wish the Stream of Time had been less convoluted and the ride less bumpy.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 35.

Chicago Tribune. July 26, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

Library Journal. CXVII, August, 1992, p. 153.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 23, 1992, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 6, 1992, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, July 13, 1992, p. 36.

Time. CXL, August 31, 1992, p. 69.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1992, p. 21.

USA Today. August 13, 1992, p. D4.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, August 2, 1992, p. 1.

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