Book Review: Sorrow of the Earth: Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and the Tragedy of Show Business by Éric Vuillard (2017)

October 17th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

What did I just read?

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review. Trigger warning for violence against Native Americans, including genocide.)

However, the real spark was elsewhere. The central idea of the Wild West Show lay somewhere else. The aim was to astound the public with an intimation of suffering and death which would never lose its grip on them. They had to be drawn out of themselves, like little silver fish in a landing net. They had to be presented with human figures who shriek and collapse in a pool of blood. There had to be consternation and terror, hope, and a sort of clarity, an extreme truth cast across the whole of life. Yes, people had to shudder—a spectacle must send a shiver through everything we know, it must catapult us ahead of ourselves, it must strip us of our certainties and sear us. Yes, a spectacle sears us, despite what its detractors say. A spectacle steals from us, and lies to us, and intoxicates us, and gives us the world in every shape and form. And sometimes, the stage seems to exist more than the world, it is more present than our own lives, more moving and more persuasive than reality, more terrifying than our nightmares.

There’s no mistaking the sound of iniquity on the move.

Originally published in France in 2014 (under the title Tristesse de la terre), Sorrow of the Earth is the first of Éric Vuillard’s novels to be translated into English. A work of historical fiction, it tells the story of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, which traveled throughout the United States and Europe, under various names, for thirty years around the turn of the century (1883–1913).

While the show featured a number of performers and attractions – including Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler; trick shooter Lillian Smith; Calamity Jane; and reenactments of the riding of the Pony Express trail and stagecoach robberies, to name a few – Vuillard centers the narrative on Native Americans, to great effect. The Wild West show employed a number of Indigenous performers, most notably Sitting Bull, as well as survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Perversely, these last were hired in part to perform in a reenactment of their own victimization; only instead of a massacre, the audience witnessed a battle: “the Buffalo Bill interpretation of the facts,” to quote Vuillard. Likewise, in Cody’s reimaging of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, none other than Buffalo Bill himself swoops in at the last moment to avenge Custer and his men.

In other words, the show glorified its star and ringmaster, while rewriting history and vilifying the oppressed Native populations. To add insult to injury, Indigenous people were recruited to assist in their own denigration.

With echoes of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, as well as a promise to deconstruct the spectacle of circuses and carnivals, Sorrow of the Earth piqued my interest. I plowed through it in one day … and was left feeling more than a little disquieted. Some of this, I’m sure, was intentional on the author’s part; e.g., a feeling of unease as to how the Native Americans were (are) treated. But the rest? Mostly I just couldn’t figure out what the heck Vuillard was trying to say. And that last chapter, wtf did I just read?

Perhaps it’s an issue of some meaning being lost in translation, but much of Vuillard’s writing is overblown and even a little pretentious. It’s clear that he’s trying hard – too hard – for a deep sense of philosophicalness, but the result often alternates between strained and comical. (e.g., “One night, the storm was so harsh, the sea so wild, that he began to feel afraid. At times, he felt he was dissolving into the sky.” A. How could you possibly know that? and B. What does this even mean?)

Additionally, there’s the narration. I went into the book with the erroneous assumption that the story would be told from the perspective of one of the Native American performers in the Wild West show. This is not the case. Normally, I wouldn’t hold my own misguided expectations against an author; except, in this case, I think the story would have been better served by having an Indigenous narrator. Instead, it feels rather detached. Bombastic, even, as the narrator makes GRAND STATEMENTS about a travesty as an outsider looking in. The narrator himself sounds quite like a showman, which doesn’t help his argument.

When Zintkala Nuni is introduced at the 37% mark, I thought for sure that she would be revealed as the story’s narrator. Just four months old at the time of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, Zintkala Nuni was found strapped to her mother’s back four days later. She was rescued, in a manner of speaking: initially cared for by members of the Lakota, she was later “adopted” by General Leonard Wright Colby (Wikipedia says she was “removed,” while Vuillard’s narrative has her being bought by Cody and promptly resold to Colby, to be used as a prop in his business dealings with Native Americans). Colby abandoned his family not long after, and his wife, suffragette Clara Bewick Colby, raised the girl, now named Margaret Elizabeth Colby. She spent time in a boarding school and, later, an institution for unwed mothers – possibly after being sexually abused and impregnated by Colby. She married, contracted syphilis from her husband; left him, and went on to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, as well as bit roles silent movies. She died in poverty at the age of thirty, struck down by the flu.

We learn a little of Zintkala Nuni’s fate from Vuillard; the problem is, the story requires some prior knowledge of these events, as Vuillard’s writing can sometimes prove confusing (so damn flowery!). Suffice it to say that the narrator is not Zintkala Nuni, but remains a distant, third party observer.

Finally, as a reader who doesn’t claim any Native American ancestry, I’m not comfortable speaking to Vuillard’s sensitivity or accuracy. Overall I thought the story was compassionate and probably more authentic than most of the white supremacist BS you’d find in American History textbooks. Certainly it inspired me to want to learn more. But what the heck do I know?

Vuillard does employ a number of terms that are both offensive but also appropriate for the time period (e.g., savages, bums). Several times Vuillard insinuates that the Native Americans’ time is coming to an end – “The spectacle that seized upon the Indians in the final moments of their history was not the least of the violence perpetrated against them.” – which is both insulting and untrue. For example, this myth formed the basis for the title of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s 2016 book, “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.

In summary, Sorrow of the Earth shows promise, but is at least partially undone by the author’s over-the-top writing style.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply