cover image The Ice-Shirt

The Ice-Shirt

William T. Vollmann. Viking Books, $19.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-670-83239-2

Continuing with the theme of oppression addressed in You Bright and Risen Angels and The Rainbow Stories , this first of seven projected novels on the exploitation of North America focuses on the Scandinavians. Freely augmenting and interpreting the sagas, Vollmann creates a past of treachery and bellicosity extending from 200 C.E. to the transoceanic adventures of Eirik the Red and his family at the turn of the millennium. Motivated alternately by an outlaw spirit and greed, the family moves west to Iceland, Greenland and eventually to Vinland (America). Once there, they proceed to cheat the native Skraelings while Freydis Eiriksdottir seeks to clothe the dulcet country in a frosty ``Ice-Shirt''--for no other reason than that she, like the rest of her kind, has an icy heart. (In the voluminous notes and glossaries appended to the novel, Vollman notes that the Micmac term jenuaq refers to the Northmen, people who have never thawed out because they don't drink enough blubber.) Despite felicitous writing throughout--from Cuppy-esque historical humor to a Nordic magic realism--one gets Vollmann's point early on, making the insistent implications of evil Northmen/noble Native a bit pat. One could only wish that the subtlety of language was matched by the subtlety of plot. (Oct.)