This is the sixth of the Seven Dreams of William the Blind, but both the third in publication order and the third I’ve read. After the Vikings crashed through Greenland into the New World, amidst saga and song, to encounter The People in The Ice-Shirt, and later the French Jesuits too meet The People in Fathers and Crows, we now journey to Canada and follow three distinct but interwoven threads.
- Doomed John Franklin and his quest for the Northwest Passage.
Why did Franklin go north again? We who are interested in him mainly for his gruesome death believe that he did it to die, that he possessed a morbid lemming’s heart whose ventricles were rimmed most dismally.
2. William Vollman’s obsession with the Arctic and the self-actualization it supplies for him. Captain Subzero, Vollman’s alter-ego, is the main character, the “grave-twin” of John Franklin himself. Just how much is fact and how much fiction in this portion is murky; I hope the times Subzero is being a creep to teenage girls is fiction.
3. The plight of the Inuit in the face of white colonialism. In a ploy to ‘claim the Arctic’, among less malevolent but equally destructive notions, the Canadian government force relocated dozens of Inuit living in northern Quebec into Resolute Bay, in the far north. Look at this goddamn map. They lived in tents in the first years. Up there.
They would nearly starve. They would be sexually abused. They weren’t allowed to leave. Some would kill themselves rather than relocate. It took until 2010, twenty years after this novel was written and about seventy five since the relocations began, for the Canadian government to apologize. Forget reparations.
Above all these story threads, the Arctic looms. Dangerous and beautiful and cold. Very, very cold. The Seven Dreams are a tale of North American landscapes and none are as well realized as the impossibly vast North. My favorite part of the novel is Vollmann’s account of the twelve days he spent alone in an abandoned weather station on Isachsen island, some sort of necessary test of masculinity and self-endurance, wherein the weather plunged to -40C and he seemed to almost die each night. It’s almost astounding how many times the point of “It’s really fucking cold there” can be made and shock me all the same.
The arctic is merely Vollmann’s obsession; surely it had to have some kind of special appeal to John Franklin — he came to his death on his fourth arctic voyage afterall. The novel fills in the blanks of what happened to him and his men, though I’d say I found this the least compelling plot thread. Of major interest to me was that it was not poor planning or the cold itself that doomed them, but the new tinned provisions they brought with them, which spoiled well before they should have and also gave the entire crew severe lead poisoning. Franklin himself fell long before the crew attempted their last ditch effort of land-based escape.
Not simply the title, The Rifles is the chief metaphor of the novel as well. The introduction of rifles by Europeans pretty much annihilated the traditional Inuit way of life. Plus they became dependent on the whites for ammo. The old ways of hunting, which required actual skill and patience, fell to the wayside in favor of quick and effortless rifle kills. Worse, it meant that they could kill many more musk-oxen and carribou and Canada became just about devoid of them in a dramatically short time. Many starved. Franklin’s expedition among them. Vollman lists a dozen quotes by whites on the subject, wherein people seem to be somewhat aware of what’s happening. It’s all very ominous, he notes, but also we can only say this in retrospect. The whites delivered plenty abuses unto the Inuit (and still do), but like any situation where modern mechanization disturbs peoples not privy to their development, what should they have done? Jealously kept the rifles to themselves?
I’m avoiding the last topic I’ll address here because it makes me somewhat uncomfortable and I’m not really sure how to address it: Reepah
Far better realized than either Franklin or Subzero is Reepah, listed in the glossary as “a woman with a beautiful heart”. The mistress of Subzero or maybe Franklin or maybe the Fulmar of Inuit myth, she spins through the narrative as various characters, typically being both loved and exploited by the former characters. Possibly impregnated by them. Maybe William Vollmann/Subzero brought her to visit him in New York. Maybe she killed herself. It’s here the fact/fiction divide is most maddening. Is Reepah real? If so, how bad was she exploited by Vollmann? Is she a metaphor for Inuit exploitation? If so, that kind of sucks too. Whatever or whoever she is, she’s magnetic and I’m sad she’s dead, real or not.