The Rifles

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This novel is volume six of Vollmann’s ambitious series entitled SEVEN DREAMS: A BOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN LANDSCAPES. The first and second segments, THE ICE-SHIRT (1990) and FATHERS AND CROWS (1992), have also been published. THE ICE-SHIRT deals with Norse landings in Greenland in the year 981 and the Norsemen’s subsequent interaction with the native Inuit population. FATHERS AND CROWS recounts in exhaustive detail the sixteenth century French settlement of present-day southeastern Canada and the European-Indian conflicts over two centuries.

Proficient in history, with well-developed side interests in anthropology and sociology, William Vollmann focuses here on the forced 1950’s Inuit relocation by the Canadian government to regions north of the Arctic Circle. His focus is especially on the small group relocated near the physically daunting Resolute Bay where his sometimes autobiographical protagonist, Captain Subzero, first meets Reepah, a twenty-four-year-old Inuit, whom he impregnates.

Throughout the novel, the protagonist shares a second, almost doppelganger, identity with John Franklin, the Arctic explorer, who roved widely in the area where the novel is set and whose fourth and final voyage in quest of the Northwest Passage proved fatal. Vollmann concocts a fictional Reepah who supposedly was Franklin’s paramour, a supposition lacking historical validity, as Vollmann freely admits.

In this work, Vollmann moves toward creating a new fictional genre, doing so impressively. The novel and the larger work of which it is a part are massive undertakings that hold considerable literary promise.

Sources for Further Study

American Book Review. XVI, December, 1994-February, 1995, p. 8.

Booklist. XC, January 1, 1994, p. 808.

Boston Globe. February 15, 1995, p. 68.

Library Journal. CXVIII, December, 1993, p. 178.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 19, 1995, p. 6.

The Nation. CCLVIII, March 21, 1994, p. 384.

The New York Times Book Review. C, February 26, 1995, p. 11.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 27, 1994, p. 6.

The Observer. October 23, 1994, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, December 6, 1993, p. 57.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XIV, Spring, 1994, p. 212.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XV, Summer, 1995, p. 216.

Time. CXLIII, March 28, 1994, p. 68.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 10, 1994, p. 23.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 20, 1991, p. 25.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, February 13, 1994, p. 11.

The Yale Review. LXXXII, April, 1994, p. 152.