Originally in French and titled Tristesse de la terre, the first of Eric Vuillard’s books to be translated by Ann Jefferson is on the blog today. A reimagined (and thoroughly researched) historical fiction focused on the Native Americans and their plight as expansion, racism and genocide ran rampant during the heyday of the Wild West Show with Buffalo Bill Cody. Please read on for my review and an excerpt from
Sorrow of the Earth
Imagine if you will, a story about Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show –and place yourself there as a person who is trying to understand that time in history. You have access to the Native Americans who remained after Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, yet you are continuing to proliferate the ‘superiority’ of those who have destroyed not only a generation of people, but did their level best to separate the survivors as different, less than, savage and not wholly human. And this, to all attempts to justify otherwise, was the intention of the show: glorify the newly arrived for their ‘victories’ , land grabbing and often genocide-like practices. So, that’s my thought entering this book, and I expected to find a story narrated by one of the many Native Americans in the show: I felt (and still feel) that narration by Zintkala Nuni, 4 months old at Wounded Knee, cared for by the Lakota, removed / adopted by General Colby and paraded about as a ‘trinket’ in his dealings along the western territories, but she wasn’t. Naration was a slightly removed 3rd person – that did actually provide some of the most graphically disturbing moments, without real emotional impact that added to the visual imagery and horror.
Originally written in French, language here does move from poetic and clear to a bit pretentious, but never does it let you settle in to read. A technique perhaps, as the revelations, the treatment and the outcome for those who were ostensibly important pieces of the show (the Native Americans) who were treated shabbily in real life and the show, all to fuel and feed the rather overblown presence of Cody himself. The narrator does delve into grandiose and often bombastic statements that portend the ‘end’ of the Native Americans and their culture, the ‘travesty’ of the acts perpetrated against them, and even some rather oddly interspersed justifications for the efforts to remove culture, language and even land from those on the ‘losing’ side. Never once did I have a moment to just relax and read along to see where this story would lead, adding tragic moments on a grand scale that was interrupted only by more personal tales of woe and the attitudes of dismissal, degradation and discrimination that all of the Native American performers in this show faced. Using language that is pointed and shocking, if in common use at the time, does, I believe bring the story a sense of compassion that is built in the reader, even as the narrator is certainly an outsider doing their part to tell the story, or what they see of it. I’m left a bit confused about my impression at the end: while I feel that the story was told with a sense of empathy for the Native Americans, and told some of the truths honestly, I truly don’t know if it went far enough, even as I think it’s a great entry point into this piece of American history, so treasured and revered by some.
I think that the moments of personal musing that enter into the story effect a reader’s compassion for the trials faced by Sitting Bull and other Wounded Knee Massacre survivors during their days in this traveling circus – for circus is what it was. Reenactments of Massacres staged as battles, showcasing the ‘superiority’ of the Army and others who were sent to ‘settle’ unowned lands, and dismissing the rich heritage and history of people who had lived on the land for millennia. An intriguing book for what it does share and the impact it has on interest to know more.
Title: Sorrow of the Earth
Author: Éric Vuillard
Genre: Historical Fiction, Setting: American, Western
Published by: Pushkin Press
Published on: 31 October, 2017
Source: Publisher Via Edelweiss
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Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they'd never seen before: real-life Indians.
This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill's great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother's frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.
Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?
A copy of this title was provided via Publisher Via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.