Book Feature – The Girl in the Thistles: A Novel of the Dakota Homeland

Book Feature – The Girl in the Thistles: A Novel of the Dakota Homeland

Hey Readers! I recently discovered a new novel by author S.K. Sandvig titled, The Girl in the Thistles: A Novel of the Dakota Homeland. The novel takes place during the U.S. – Dakota War and features a main character that has a Dakota/Scottish racial background. Although I’ve not had a chance to read the novel yet, it’s getting great reviews. Today, I’m going to share with you the synopsis, information about the author, and the first chapter of the novel. If you’ve already read it, or once you get the chance to, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Cover image for the novel The Girls in the Thistles

Emilie, the 19-year old daughter of a Sioux mother and a Scottish father, finds her home destroyed when her clan is caught up in the US-Dakota war of 1862. Her mother is sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, and Emilie sets out to find her father, who has been missing since the beginning of the war. With help from two new and unlikely friends, Eustis and Anders, she begins a treacherous and emotional journey to track him down. Will she find him? Will her mother be set free? And will Emilie be able to rebuild the home she’s lost?

“This exceptional historical adventure is an inclusive experience, sharing actual life events woven through the lives of the settlers, the Dakota people, and one group so
important, but often overshadowed and overlooked, those of Minnesota’s mixed-blood people, the people of the transition – and in this story, those of Dakota and Scottish heritage. All that can be expected of an historical
adventure is more than achieved with The Girl in the Thistles.
–Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz, Author of The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-1864

Photo of author S.K. Sandvig
Author S.K. Sandvig

About the Author

S.K. Sandvig is a retired pastor with a passion for powerful stories of history that give voice to underrepresented events and people. He holds degrees in architecture, Biblical studies, and education and has been a general contractor. He has a special love for the wide-open spaces of the Dakotas (where he was raised) and Australia (where his children were born). He and his wife have four children and fourteen grandchildren who often ask him for more stories.

Novel Excerpt

Chapter 1 – The Locket


Sunlight filtered through the entrance of the tipi and danced gently across the face of the sleeping girl. She began to stir. Through slits in her eyes, Emilie Ferguson saw her mother hang an object on a peg and slip quietly out of the tipi. She turned to her side and looked around as the familiar shapes of her home came into focus. Leather pouches filled with beads, shells, and tools made of bone lay tucked away under the far edge of the tipi. A buffalo robe was draped over a willow bench next to two smoking pipes that hung on a pole. On the ground, below the pipes, were several journals and small bags of tobacco and dried scrapings of red willow bark, which Emilie’s grandfather would mix to make kinnikinnick. Their sweet and pungent odors made Emilie’s nose itch.

In the milky light of the lodge, a gold locket shimmered like a full moon on a foggy night. Emilie stared at it, admiring the outline of thistles etched on its gold-plated cover. Night Song, Emilie’s mother, had gone to wash in the lake and would be back soon. Quickly, Emilie peeled off her blanket and stood up to put the locket around her neck, letting it lie on her chest. It was only half of the locket, the front disc. The back disc, which her father wore under his shirt, had been engraved with the image of a Scottish manor house. Years earlier, for their wedding vows, Papa had pried the locket apart and given Night Song the front disc, and she in return had given him the back disc.

With slow motions, Emilie rubbed the raised imprint of thistles while listening for her mother’s return. She knew full well that her mother did not like her handling the locket, but she did it anyway.

The tipi was not large by Dakota standards. It was the same size as the one her grandparents had nearby. Twelve ivory-colored bison skins had been carefully stitched together with sinews. Night Song and Unci, Emilie’s grandmother, had decorated it with dabs of yellow and blue paint to represent stars in the night sky. On either side of the tent flap, they had embroidered porcupine quills, dyed purple, to represent thistles. Papa often told stories of the thistles of Scotland, his homeland, which were ‘good medicine,’ he claimed. Of course, there were thistles at Hillhead, and the sight of them would often get Papa singing,

O, the Thistle o’ Scotland was famous of auld,
Wi’ its toorie sae snod and its bristles sae bauld;
’Tis the badge o’ my country—it’s aye dear to me;
And the thocht o’ them baith brings the licht to my e’e.

On this particular morning, Papa, Jack Ferguson, was making his way home from the Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters, 500 miles to the north, at Fort Garry in British territory. He had been promoted numerous times and was now responsible for the growing trade on the Red River trails between Fort Garry and St. Paul. But like other Company men with native wives, Jack had chosen to make his home with his wife’s clan.

“Emilie, are you awake?”

Peering through a four-foot tunnel of thatched grass that protected the entrance to the lodge, Emilie could see her grandmother, a small Dakota woman in her sixties, hunched over a fire, making corn cakes in a frying pan and looking in Emilie’s direction.

“Yes, I’m coming,” said Emilie, lifting the locket from her neck and placing it on the peg. She bent over, slumped through the thatched-grass tunnel, and joined Unci at the cooking fire. Her grandmother plunked a fresh dollop of fat in the center of the frying pan and let it sizzle. While watching Unci cook, Emilie wet her fingers repeatedly and pressed hard on her wayward tresses to make them lie straight. She wanted so badly to have naturally straight hair like the other Sioux girls did. To her chagrin, her auburn hair was thick and unruly, which framed a heart-shaped face. Her green eyes, flecked with blue, were set wide apart under straight brow-lines, marking her with intelligence.

Emilie sat down next to her grandmother and nudged her with her shoulder. Unci smiled and nudged her back. Reaching into a bowl of cornmeal dough, Emilie made a lump and flattened it between her palms. She pressed it to the hot pan, watching liquid fat spatter around the soft edges of the dough. Then Unci pressed it flat with her spoon.

“You hungry this morning?” asked Unci.

“Enough for two!” said Emilie, scanning the camp to see who was up and about. Several were tending fires. Others were gathering sticks and wood. Thunder, their pinto pony, grazed quietly with three other ponies under a massive, peeling cottonwood. Beyond the trees, green prairies stretched as far as the eye could see. Morning was a time she cherished, especially when she was alone with Unci.

Suddenly, from beyond the circle of lodges, a trio of boys, almost out of breath, came running from the bottom of the coulee, shouting, “Bison! We found a herd of bison!”

The tallest boy, Leather Wing, saw Emilie and shouted out to her, “Bison. It’s time to hunt!” Emilie smiled back, surprised he had noticed her. All the girls admired Leather Wing, with his broad shoulders, strong arms, and calm demeanor.

Chief Red Iron hurried from the direction of his lodge and approached the boys. He wasted no words. “How many? How far? Where?” In the previous year, the Dakota had failed to find any bison, and crops had dwindled from lack of rain. Hunger was lurking in the villages. Fearful whispers were spreading, especially among the women of the four Dakota Sioux tribes. Leather Wing stepped forward and explained that there were at least fifty bison near the Lake of Storks.

“Re-Ipaham? Are they near Re-Ipaham?” asked the chief. Leather Wing nodded yes, and Red Iron turned to shout orders. The camp came alive with preparations for a hunt. Winona, Emilie’s fifteen-year-old cousin, came running.

“Red Iron needs twenty women to go help with the slaughter,” she said. “Are you coming?”

Emilie ran to her tipi, picked up her satchel, and handed it to Unci, who began packing it with fresh corn cakes and small strips of pemmican. Night Song returned from washing up and went quickly to the tipi to finish dressing. Moments later, she appeared at the fire, tying the ends of her braids with leather thongs.

“Ina, I’m going to join the hunt,” said Emilie. “Red Iron will need help butchering the bison.” Night Song said nothing at first, staring at Emilie.

Then she asked, “What happened to my locket? Were you wearing it again?”

Startled, Emilie stammered, “Yes, but—but I put it back. Have you heard? They’ve found a herd of bison. Can I go help with the hunt? Winona is going.”

“Well, my locket is gone.”

Surely it was a mistake! Emilie ran to the tipi to find the gold locket. She looked first at the peg on the pole, but it wasn’t there. Then she knelt on the ground and felt around the base of the pole for several minutes. It was nowhere to be found!

She hurried back to her mother and said, “I’m sorry, Ina. I can’t find it now. I hung it on the pole where you put it this morning. It has to be in the tipi somewhere. I’ll look for it when I get back.”

Night Song was quiet, but from the firm set of her mouth, Emilie could tell her mother didn’t believe her. In this moment, more than anything, Emilie wanted to go and join the hunt, and she needed her mother’s blessing. Night Song glared at Emilie, daring her to stop ‘lying.’ Unci looked away, embarrassed. Emilie’s throat tightened as she fought to keep the tears away. In recent months, Ina had been reprimanding Emilie more than usual, and now she refused to believe her daughter. Would she let Emilie join the hunt?

Unci spoke up. “Emilie knows how to use the knife now and where to make the cuts. Here, Emilie, take my knife. I think you should go and help with the butchering.” Emilie almost cried out with relief, but she remained quiet, waiting for Night Song’s response. Night Song said nothing. Instead, she turned and went back to the tipi.

“You better get going before Winona leaves you behind,” said Unci with an unwavering look in her eye. Emilie knew that Unci did not like taking sides, but as the matriarch of the family, there were times she had to pick a side, especially when disagreements erupted between Emilie and her mother. To Emilie, it seemed that in recent months, her mother was becoming more difficult to live with, and she wondered why. But she dared not speak of it to anyone, even Unci.

Emilie rushed to join Winona, who was lashing two long ash poles and one short cross-pole together with leather thongs to make a travois, which would carry a load of meat back to camp. They hitched the travois to Thunder and mounted him together and joined the other women who rode in single file.

Night Song and Unci watched the hunting party depart. “When you get back,” said Night Song to Emilie, “we must talk.” Emilie said nothing in return as the party rode over the edge of the hill and out of sight.

At high noon, the hunting party stopped to water their ponies at a stream and eat. Emilie slipped her sore and sweaty feet into the cool water. Winona opened Emilie’s satchel and reached in to grab some pemmican and cornbread. Pulling her hand out, she said, “Why did you bring this?” There in her hand was the gold locket!

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