A hundred and one years after independence, we find a country expanding westward at a cosmic rate, fleeing the carnage of a civil war and inciting new conflicts and bloodshed en route. In pursuit of land, resources, and power, treaties are broken, territories are seized, battles ensue, and entire peoples are dispersed and destroyed. Those who were once allies are made bitter enemies.
For such a profound subject and monstrous text, The Dying Grass is often minute in scope. Yes, it covers the major decisions and events that made up the Nez Perce War, but its prime concerns are two reluctant leaders and a surrounding motley chorus of characters, who, when cobbled together, form the cast and cause of this violent and deeply unfortunate conflict. Throughout, William T. Vollmann reminds us that war is not solely the purview of generals but also forged from the thoughts, desires, and actions of its soldiers, civilians, and victims, many of whom care far less about politics and strategy than a new pair of boots, some land of their own, a rowdy evening at a saloon, or, often, returning home to their families and previous ways of life. By situating much of The Dying Grass directly on the ground, war becomes much messier and uglier but also more personal and tangible.
Vollmann’s fractured narrative, which, in giving voice to so many characters, pivots quickly and frequently between speaker, external/internal voice, and the past and present, offers more than enough cadence and momentum to propel the reader through this massive work. To steal a recurring phrase from the text, it’s “beautiful and automatic,” and–simply–a thrill to read.