Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

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.

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

Title: Sorrow of the Earth
Author: Éric Vuillard
Genre: Historical Fiction, Setting: American, Western
Published by: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 1782272216
Published on: 31 October, 2017
Source: Publisher Via Edelweiss
Pages: 192
Rated: four-stars
Get Your Copy: Amazon Barnes&Noble iTunes Kobo IndieBound Book Depository
See this Title on Goodreads

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.




 The Museum of Mankind

Spectacle is the origin of the world.

Tragedy stands before us, motionless and strangely anachronistic. And so, in Chicago, at the World’s
Columbian Exposition of 1893 commemorating the 00th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, a display of
relics on a stall in the central aisle included the desiccated orpse of a newborn Indian baby.

There were twenty-one million visitors. They promenaded on the wooden balconies of the Idaho Building, admired the miracles of technology, like the gigantic chocolate Venus de Milo at the entrance to the agricultural pavilion, and then bought cones of sausages for ten cents apiece. Huge numbers of buildings had been erected, and the place resembled a gimcrack St Petersburg, with its arches, its obelisks, its plaster architecture borrowed from every age and every land.

The black-and-white photographs we have convey the illusion of an extraordinary city, with palaces
fringed by statues and fountains, and ornamental pools down to which stone steps slowly descend.

Yet it’s all fake.

But the highlight of the Columbian Exposition, its apotheosis, the feature that was to attract the greatest number of spectators, was the Wild West Show. Everyone wanted to see it. And Charles Bristol—the proprietor of the stall with the Indian relics and the exhibit of the baby’s corpse—also wanted to drop everything and go! He already knew the spectacle, because right at the start of his career, he had been the manager and wardrobe master for the Wild West Show. But it was no longer the same, and it had now become a colossal enterprise. There were two performances a day, and eighteen thousand seats. Horses galloped past a backdrop of gigantic painted canvases. It wasn’t the loose string of rodeos and sharpshooters that he had known, but a veritable enactment of History. So while the Columbian Exposition was celebrating the industrial revolution, Buffalo Bill was glorifying conquest.

Later on, much later on, Charles Bristol had worked for the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company,
which employed nearly eight hundred Indians and around fifty Whites to sell its stuff. Its flagship medicine was Sagwa, a mixture of herbs and alcohol for the treatment of rheumatism and dyspepsia. And it would appear that cowboys suffered particularly from wind and borborygmic dyspepsia, because right across the country people were in search of a remedy. Eventually, Charles Bristol abandoned the sale of medicines and embarked on a series of long tours with his collection of objets d’art. Two Winnebago Indians who were part of the Medicine Company had decided to follow him. The museum toured in the Midwest and the little sketches it staged, where the Indians performed dances to illustrate the specific function of each object, were both entertaining and educational.
Towards the end of 1890, barely three years before the Columbian Exposition, Charles Bristol had joined forces with a bum by the name of Riley Miller. Once Bristol chummed up with Riley, the story becomes hard to credit.

Previously, according to him, Bristol had accumulated his treasures thanks to his Indian
friendships—a long succession of little gifts. But Riley Miller was a murderer and a thief. He would scalp and strip dead Indians: he murdered them and then took their moccasins, their weapons, their shirts, their hair—everything. Men, women or children. A part of the relics displayed by Bristol at the Chicago Fair came from these activities. Later on, the history museum in Nebraska bought Charles Bristol’s collection; and today, somewhere in the museum’s reserve collection, you might well come across the desiccated body of the Indian baby from the Exposition.

What this tells us is that show business and the human sciences had their origins in the same displays, with curiosities lifted from the dead. Which means that today, what you find on museum shelves throughout the world is nothing but trophies and plunder. And all the African, Indian or Asian objects that we admire were stolen off corpses.

Excerpted from Sorrow of the Earth by ERIC VUILLARD. Copyright © 2017 by Éric Vuillard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


About Éric Vuillard

Born in Lyons in 1968, Éric Vuillard is a French author and film director. His books include Conquistadors (winner of the Ignatius J. Reilly prize 2010), and La Bataille de l'occident and Congo, which were jointly awarded the 2012 Franz-Hessel prize and the 2013 Valery-Larbaud prize. Sorrow of the Earth is the first of his titles to be translated into English.



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