William Vollmann’s “The Dying Grass” and my book on Chief Joseph

I am not good at self-promotion — perhaps the greatest affliction a contemporary author can possess. To me, the book is the thing, not the person who wrote it.  Far better to be the man behind the curtain than the prancing duke and dauphin, but the world is what it is.

Having said that, I want to put in a word for my book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.  I am doing this because a gigantic novel on the Nez Perce, The Dying Grass (1300 pages) by William Vollmann has just been published by Viking/Penguin. I have not read it, but from what I have seen and heard of it, it sounds fascinating, albeit a bit long for my tastes.

And there’s the rub.  Viking, with a difficult-to-sell, highly priced book is bringing out all the artillery to promote it.  Independent of any success it has — and I wish the author well — it has the supremely beneficial effect of bringing attention to the story of the Nez Perce and their tragic exodus across the northwest while being pursued by the U.S. Army.

If you look at the reviews of my book on the same subject, you will quickly realize that though many people have heard of Chief Joseph, few even know of the Nez Perce tribe.  Vollmann’s book and the attendant publicity will go a long way toward changing that.

This seems like a propitious moment to suggest my book as a default read for those who either by temperament or economics will not read a $55, 1300 page book.  My work, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, is, in many ways, the book of which I am most proud.  I used all my skills of description and empathy to bring you along on the journey of these amazing people, and to illuminate the character of Chief Joseph, with whom the journey is — wrongly, I believe — most closely associated.

My virtue is that I know the Native people and they know me.  I am not a “parachute” historian or novelist.  I think I can go further into their world while keeping a respectful distance than any other writer.  And in this book, that’s what I did.  I wrote it with the tools of the novelist — trying to make you present on their journey — while keeping the fidelity of the historian.  Judging from the reviews on Amazon, I was successful.

The story of the Nez Perce needs to be told.  Their journey is the shadow side of the journey of Lewis and Clark and a signature event in understanding the history and character of this country.  And Chief Joseph is a man to whom I would have entrusted my son (which, by the way, is exactly what Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a soldier present at the Nez Perce surrender who wrote down Joseph’s famous speech, did, several years later).

I believe I have done this story justice in a very different way than Mr. Vollmann.  But this is a story that needs to be told in as many ways and as many voices as it can.  If your interest is piqued, but Mr. Vollmann’s work seems more than you wish to take on, or if you have read  his work and wish to see the story through different set of eyes and with a different cast of heart, I hope you will consider my book on the subject.  Take a look at what the readers on Amazon have to say:  http://www.amazon.com/Chief-Joseph-Flight-Nez-Perce/dp/0061136085/ref=pd_sim_14_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=093VCZQN400SMVB1QVF5.

I think you will find that this is a journey worth taking.

12 comments

  1. Lin says:

    Well, I have opted for your book – not because I am intimidated by the 1300 pages, (although the $55 price tag may have put me off a bit). But I have read your work and I trust you as an author. I’m looking forward to this one.

  2. knerburn says:

    I don’t mean to disparage Vollmann’s book. In fact, I’m looking forward to at least trying to read it, though my glacial reading pace and weird manner of concentration makes poetry a much more evocative vehicle for me than 1300 page books. He is, by all accounts, incredibly inventive and a fine writer. My work, on the contrary, is very straightforward and has as its single purpose to make you feel as if you are with both the Nez Perce and the military. To me it is a human story, and I want to humanity to dominate over everything other than the power of the land and the weather, which I want to stand equal to the human drama. Enjoy.

  3. Natalia says:

    Dear Mr.Nerburn, thank you for your work! Reading Chief Joseph now with tears. Sometimes I need to stop and take a deep breath.

  4. knerburn says:

    It is a good book, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m amazed that I wrote it; it was so much work, both intellectually and emotionally. I’m happy that there is some growing interest in the Nez Perce story, and in the man who really led them through the wilderness after the war itself. It is a profound teaching for all of us.

  5. Steve says:

    I’ve been interested in the Nez Perce and other tribes and their history but have certainly not absorbed or researched it in depth. I’ve been to the American Indian Museum in Washington DC. And read just a smattering of materials.

    I’ve started the Vollmann, which is number 5 in a series of books about the North American continent. His books are long but involving. And they take so much from the era that you are immediately desirous of understanding more about each character and site.

    I’m also about to start your book to read either while reading the Vollmann or immediately after. Although it is hard to know when after will come with a book this size. But I have no doubt that your book is among the very few contemporary histories and tales of the Nez Perce and many will be led to it by virtue of the Vollmann book.

    This evening I watched a video from several years ago in which you spoke at a bookstore for about an hour about your “Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce”. Your dedication to the topic was clear. And I’m sure you’ll see it moving along with renewed interest.

  6. knerburn says:

    I hope you enjoy both books, Steve. I went and listened to William Vollmann read the other night, and, frankly, I was bothered by how wrong his history was, though his knowledge of the minutiae of the Nez Perce time and culture was incredibly deep and comprehensive. I pondered this for the whole evening, wondering how someone who obviously knew so much could have gotten some of the broad strokes so wrong. It was in the q and a that the answer came out. He said he did not talk to any of the Nez Perce because he thought that they might be upset by some of his language and characterizations, and he preferred not to interact with subjects about whom he was writing. Although I can’t say for certain, to my mind this caused him to perpetuate some of the old myths about Joseph and his leadership. I hope I’m wrong, and that it was simply the small sample size (albeit 45 minutes of straight reading about the Big Hole Massacre) that allowed me to get that impression. Please write me after you have finished both books and tell me if I am off base. I can say with certainty that my understanding of Joseph’s role, as well as Miles’ and Ad Chapman’s, is correct. I’d like to know what you conclude after immersing yourself in these two very different presentations.

  7. I am grateful for your work, Kent. Just having read Neither Wolf Nor Dog during our last trip to Montana (I purchased it in Missoula) and our travel home to northern MN on hwy 2 through upper MT and ND, I was there alongside your travels with Dan and Grover. The book moved me in countless ways. What a joy to discover your roots so close to my home.

    I just purchased your book about Chief Joseph and am anxious to journey along with this story as well.

    Thank you for being a keeper of the fire.

  8. Shawn Gilbert says:

    This bit of news captivated me, especially since I just finished reading Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perz. Perhaps you and your readers will also appreciate Chief Sauti’s generous offer!

    Molly Ivins Portrait; Friday’s Funday; August 21, 2015

    Native American Council Offers Amnesty to 240 Million Undocumented Whites

    At a meeting (recently) in Taos, New Mexico, Native American leaders weighed a handful of proposals about the future of the United State’s large, illegal European population. After a long debate, NANC decided to extend a road to citizenship for those without criminal records or contagious diseases.

    “We will give Europeans the option to apply for Native Citizenship,” explained Chief Sauti of the Nez Perce tribe. “To obtain legal status, each applicant must write a heartfelt apology for their ancestors’ crimes, pay an application fee of $5,000, and, if currently on any ancestral Native land, they must relinquish that land to NANC or pay the market price, which we decide.

  9. Tom Beshear says:

    Your book sounds intriguing and I hope to read it after taking a break from recently finishing The Dying Grass. I will be interested in learning how your interpretation of Chief Joseph and related matters differs from Bill Vollmann’s. I know that, like you, he understands Joseph wasn’t a war chief and lacked any influence on the young warriors who carried out the fighting. Of course, Vollmann’s work is fiction and he’s upfront in the extensive source notes about liberties he’s taken with the historical record. So I look forward to reading your well-researched history.

  10. Hi Kent
    I do not plan to read the 1300 book on the Nez Perce, I’m almost finished with your book and liked the way that you started the story on Chief Joesph and then discovered it was more about the plight of a people. European Culture we tend even now to demonize and or lionize a person with more focus on the individual. Books like lies my teacher told me, people’s history of the United States, are telling the alternate versions.of history difficult to read and conflicting with previous studies, rote learning methods. This summer I also read the Redemption of Black Elk – I thought that book was excellent by relating how Black Elk’s teachings transcends what happen to the Lakota to how we can interpret those techings to meaning today. What’s your take on that or other favorite books on American culture?
    Great books and I will continue to read your stories!

  11. Vernon W. Goodrich says:

    I received three of your books from an old classmate that is now living in MN. and I read them in six days. I just couldn’t put them down. I loved your prose and your genuine feel and love for the native Indian. I came to your website to purchase more of your outstanding writings. Thank you for giving me incite into the native Indian and love for their God-given ways.

  12. jan heaton says:

    I need more info on Chief Joseph [the younger] for my families history.
    I’ve got a lot of info for you. try- “Birgerie Noe Bolender for starters. My Dad was abandoned- adopted- now I find his “facial image” on crazy horse mountain-1947

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