Recently, I discovered The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman—a historical fiction novel set before, during, and after the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Published in 2007 by Soho Press, it came as a surprise to me that I had not previously heard about this novel. Because of my interest in the U.S. – Dakota War and the interest of my readers, I decided to read The Night Birds and share my perspective on this fascinating novel.
The novel begins in 1876 at Kingdom Township, Minnesota, with a young boy named Asa Senger. Asa was born a few months after the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 and knows little of what transpired along the Minnesota River Valley, being concerned instead with the locusts that continually ravage his family’s farm. However, circumstances change when Asa’s long lost Aunt Hazel arrives. Hazel was presumed dead shortly after the U.S. – Dakota War, but Asa learns that she had been spending her years in a St. Peter Mental Health Facility or insane asylum as it was called at the time. Hazel is quiet and strange, but Asa is curious and quickly develops a liking for his aunt.
From this point the novel takes us back to Aunt Hazel’s youth in Saline Springs, Missouri, in 1859. We learn that Hazel’s father is an abolitionist journalist who is run out of town for his opinions on slavery. This leads the family north where they eventually settle on the north side of the Minnesota River at the Milford Prairie. Across the river, along the Waraju Prairie, lives a small band of Wahpekute Dakota. Among the Wahpekute is Wanikiya, Savior, a Dakota boy who grows up tormented by his older brother. The two families, Dakota and white, regard each other strangely, but come to live as good neighbors with the children often playing together. That was, at least, until the death of Winona, a Dakota girl whose death was blamed on Hazel’s brother.
The novel continues, bouncing back and forth between Asa’s life at Kingdom Township in 1876, and Hazel’s life on the Milford Prairie in 1859-1862. Ultimately, Hazel’s story takes precedent as Minnesota is encountered by the tragic circumstances of the U.S. – Dakota War. Hazel is taken captive while her family is torn apart. However, Hazel discovers solace and hope with her Dakota captors and Wanikiya whom she eventually marries. In the end, Hazel loses everything and struggles to maintain her sanity. As for Asa, he learns the truth about Hazel which leads him to discover the truth about himself.
Although The Night Birds is slow in developing, it is quite effective in creating intriguing, realistic characters and setting. Maltman works hard to intertwine people and places in a way that becomes emotionally moving by the end. Furthermore, Maltman includes countless historical and cultural details that are accurate, humanizing, and work to make the novel incredibly interesting, while the characters make the novel compelling. Some of the historical details are slightly skewed or changed, especially those regarding the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857, but once Maltman reaches the U.S. – Dakota War he includes little-known and well-known facts that were clearly derived from historical documentation. Finally, Maltman has strong, eloquent prose that brings the characters and settings to life and makes the novel delightful to read.
If you are interested in the lives of settlers and Dakota before and during the U.S. – Dakota War, and you enjoy literary fiction, I strongly recommend reading The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman. You can purchase a discounted copy in my online bookstore here.