The story of Jamestown Colony and the personal histories of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, among others, take center stage—in this huge and fascinating fourth installment in the indefatigable Vollmann’s ongoing serial novel Seven Dreams
Argall joins earlier volumes (The Ice-Shirt, 1990; Fathers and Crows, 1992; The Rifles, 1994) in a powerful (sometimes ponderous) indictment of the wrongs committed by colonizers in their encounters with native North American populations. Once again, Vollmann assembles materials gathered from multiple historical sources (here, William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book and the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others), as well as invented ones by the series’ omniscient (though not at all objective) narrator “William the Blind” (a concept lifted from the medieval Scottish epic poem Wallace). After a lengthy prologue and somewhat briefer histories of earlier foreign interest in the Virginia territory, and of adventurers who would sail and settle there, the story itself settles into focusing on its several major characters. Chief among them are the powerful tribal leader Powhatan, his impulsive young daughter Amonute (a.k.a. “Pocahontas”) and crafty kinsman Opechancanough (“more subtle & redoubtable than Powhatan himself”), the itinerant, weak-willed Englishman (Smith) who is the Indian maiden’s unworthy first love, and the eponymous Samuel Argall, the satanic military commander and later deputy governor who introduces slavery and genocide into the pristine Virginia wilderness. Vollmann’s tendency to digress and fulminate is kept under firmer control than usual here (though the narrative proper is followed by extensive addenda, glossaries, and source notes). There are longueurs, but the tale picks up speed and clarity as it progresses, graced by arresting figurative language (“Powhatan’s greatest palace was long and narrow as a dog’s jaws,” etc.) and a brilliantly handled ornate period style. And his portrayal of Pocahontas—married off to an English tobacco planter and condemned to outcast status in the two worlds she moves fearfully between—assumes the shape of genuine tragedy.
There’s no getting around it: this is essential reading. Vollmann’s eccentric, impassioned historical dream visions are, despite frequent redundancies and occasional infelicities, slowly carving their niche among the present age’s most commanding and illuminating fictions.