cover image Fathers and Crows

Fathers and Crows

William T. Vollmann. Viking Books, $30 (1008pp) ISBN 978-0-670-84333-6

Ready or not, we have an Ovid in our midst. In the second installment in his Seven Dream series, the 32-year-old Vollmann shows every sign of being equal to his self-appointed task of creating a ``symbolic history'' of the European settlement of North America. Following upon The Ice-Shirt (1990), which told of Leif Eriksson's Eric the Red's ``discovery'' of what is now British Columbia around A.D. 1000, Fathers and Crows chronicles the exploits of the French and the missionary Jesuits in Canada from the 16th to the 18th centuries. For all the book's historical trappings (six glossaries, a detailed chronology and 50 pages of source notes), it is less an historical novel than a novel about history. ``History is like a string that the cat has swallowed,'' says the cynical narrator, William the Blind: ``drawing events and eventsstet `events and events' from the poor creature's throat, one is surprised at how much must be disgorged.'' Indeed, Vollmann includes enough horrific descriptions of colonial North America--the impossible winters, the outbreaks of smallpox and scurvy (``Flesh blossomed in men's mouths like fungus''), the crude and heartless conflicts--to make the books of Francis Parkman seem like unctuous travel guides. Vollmann negotiates politically treacherous issues of dominant culture vs. native tradition with a skeptic's aplomb; swayed neither by notions of European individualism nor by those of Indian community, he has created an open text that invites all comers. Powerful as his performance is, however, the novel's breadth of time and incident and detail does not clarify so much as overwhelm. The character of History remains as irrational as the black-tentacled Indian force at the bottom of the Fleuve St.-Laurent. Still, Vollmann's ambition is without parallel, and clearly he has set in place another solid block of his audacious project. (Aug.)