Home > 2010, 21st Century, French Literature, History of the USA, Récit, Vuillard Eric > Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

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?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

  1. April 25, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    This sounds like the kind of debate that could rage on and on, especially in today’s world, where reality has started to resemble reality TV (which was never intended to be really real).


    • April 25, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      It’s an endless debate but at the moment, I’m worried about this new tendency to refuse scientific facts when they are in contradiction with what someone wants to promote as truth. You know, these people who say that the Earth is flat, that Darwin was wrong or that or global warming is a fairy tale.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. April 26, 2017 at 1:59 am

    Yes, sometimes I wonder whether authors who can’t think of anything else to write about just pluck some story out of popular memory to use, trading on the popularity of the topic for consumer interest.


    • April 26, 2017 at 5:48 am

      I’m not sure it’s the case here. And this book had really good critics.
      I’m just a bit wary of mixed genres when it comes to non-fiction. On the one hand it’s a lot easier to read than a dry essay and it reaches a broader audience. On the other hand, there’s this issue about accuracy.

      He could have gone further and make a parallel with nowadays and reality shows.
      Something is missing here but my opinion is not representative of his readership.


  3. April 26, 2017 at 6:10 am

    I haven’t read the book, Emma, so I can’t comment on it or its weaknesses. That said…. being British but living here in America, one of the many things I was fascinated by was Native American History and when I got the chance to take classes I did.
    I can still remember many of the scenes we read about. Very shocking at times.

    “His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.”
    Too bad he didn’t go far enough in his analysis, but I reiterate that I haven’t read the book. I think it’s ok to show your emotion as sometimes sitting on the fence is a cop-out.


    • May 1, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      Sorry for the late answer I just came back from a weekend at a place without internet.

      There are shocking scenes in The Last Frontier by Howard Fast.
      I think he didn’t go far enough too and I see your point about letting the reader know which side the reader is on.


  4. April 26, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Great post Emma.

    You raise some important questions. I believe that to order to find truth one has to read objective sources. Too much emotion or bias hinders real understanding.

    The issue of accuracy and questionable sources is serious. If one doubts basics like this the entire book may be invalid.

    I think that books that advocate an opinion or have an agenda can be valuable, but the author should spell out what they are doing and opinion should be separated from facts.


    • May 1, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      I’m ill at ease with this kind of text, mostly for a question of trust. He never promised to be objective, by the way.
      Maybe it just means I shouldn’t read books like this.


  5. April 29, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    You raise a very interesting question, Emma! I think it’s OK for non-fiction authors to have an emotional reaction to what they’re writing about—if they immerse themselves in a subject, some sort of reaction would be natural, and complete objectivity is impossible. I tend to prefer writers who are up front about their stance. But I think it’s crucial when you have a strong opinion to be clear about the factual basis of your arguments, and the sources behind them. That way, a reader may disagree with the position taken, but they at least can be confident that the basic facts are reliable. Sounds as if that didn’t happen here for you, which is a shame. I can see how it would undermine the whole reading experience.


    • May 1, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      I guessed I would have liked a foreword by the writer explaining what he was aiming at, why he wrote this book in the first place. That’s a problem with French editions of books. Unless they’re a classic and the edition is aimed at students, there are no forewords in books. English editions are better in this respect. I wonder how it is in other languages.


  6. April 29, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    On a side note, the title sounds much better in French!


    • May 1, 2017 at 8:02 pm

      I think so too. Probably because “terre” covers more meanings that “earth”. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more accurate to say “Sorrow of the land”. Wouldn’t it be better considering it’s about Native Americans?


  7. April 30, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    I’ve long stopped believing that there is an objective analysis of history or even sciene. I think the only objective analysis comes from the reader precisely because it is subjective; ie, the reader consciously starts a book knowing that it won’t reveal the truth. Otherwise, the reader will turn the book into a propagandist document. I haven’t read this book but it seems, from your review, that the reader quickly grasps the non-objectivity of it, and so it becomes to the reader to appreciate the writing style and to take this work as a stepping stone to further research and enquiry. I’ve bought Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin Vol 1. It’s a 3-volume biography of Stalin, each is around 1200 pages. Looking at it taking up a huge chunk in my bookcase, I ask myself if I truly want to learn so many details about Stalin, especially that I know that the most controversial point between Lenin and Stalin, that Lenin ordered the murder or the removal of Stalin, Kotkin clearly says in the introduction, can never be proven because the documents (and the witnesses obviously) do not exist anymore.
    This is also why I liked La Femme au Temps des Cathédrales; if I want to be picky about it, there are generalizations about all sorts of affirmations she makes, but the book was so enriching, it opened up my mind on an important historical era, it was a joy to read and more improtantly, it gave me solid material to defend my hypotheses when having drinks with friends 🙂


    • May 1, 2017 at 8:14 pm

      1200 pages about Stalin’s life, wow. I could never engage in that.
      Reading the comments readers left on this post, I think I would have been more comfortable with a clear explanation of the objective of the book.
      Then you know where you stand and you make your decision.

      It’s a nice read, btw. Very French in its style and agreable to read.

      About La France des Cathédrales. Régine Pernoud had a PhD in medieval history, I think you can trust what she wrote. Same with Simone Bertière I recommended the other day. Both are good writers on top of being historians. C’est de la bonne vulgarisation. (I don’t think there’s a good English word for vulgarisation)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. May 29, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    read the novel in French. It IS a novel, aka fictional, based in real events. As a novelist, he deserves our “suspension of disbelief”, and notably so in that case, because the novel reminds the reader that history is ALWAYS written by the dominant forced of each time period, and as such, the genocide of American Indians deserves to be given a voice which contradicts the general assumption that the American government and it’s army were not to blame. They were and are guilty of hatred and racism.


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