My dad is a history buff, and one of his areas of interest is the conflicts between Native Americans and the pioneers and settlers who took over their land. He always takes the side of the Native Americans. One of his heroes is the great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, who led the United States military on an epic chase while trying to keep his people from starving and freezing to death before finally surrendering with the words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Now, my dad is not exactly “woke,” and there is absolutely a sense of championing the underdog and the “noble savage” to his position on the subject, but it did instill in me the importance of seeing both sides of a story–that of the loser as well as the winner.
The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman is a book I’ll be recommending to my dad, because Maltman does a wonderful job of presenting both sides of the Dakota War of 1862 and the related Mankato hangings (note that the Wikipedia page linked here, doesn’t). Beyond the history, though, Maltman’s descriptions of southwestern Minnesota bring the area to life.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or those where we learn something about the geography, history and/or people of that state. Right now we are finishing up Minnesota.
Much of The Night Birds deals with the 1862 conflict, which is often overshadowed in history lessons by the Civil War. I hadn’t really realized, however, until I started looking at web pages, that the reason the later timeline of the book is set in 1876 is that that’s the year of the Great Sioux War in South Dakota (although I should have, because Maltman mentions Little Big Horn in particular), which explains why local sentiment had spiked against the Native Americans (and their sympathizers) again.
As for me, I mostly figured that the Indian was guilty of poor timing. General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry had just been annihilated at Little Bighorn as the country was preparing to celebrate the first centennial. Our nation was reeling from the loss of this hero and three hundred soldiers. A few newspapers openly called for the “extermination of the entire treacherous red race.” And while we were far from the Montana territory where this had happened, the people here had suffered greatly during the month of August 1862 and had long memories. They did not see a man before them. They saw a devil.
Maltman’s historical knowledge is impressive, spurring us (or at least some of us) to learn more. He refers several times to Caleb’s participation in the “Devil’s Lake campaign.” Having lived in Wisconsin for many years, I was curious, since there is a Devil’s Lake in western Wisconsin, north of Madison. But this campaign turned out to be much more confusing than I expected! There is also a Devil’s Lake in Minnesota, not too far from Fargo, and close to a modern-day reservation. However, there are also several groups of Dakota mentioned in the book that, together, make up the Spirit Lake Tribe, which was formerly known as the Devil’s Lake Sioux. They were apparently moved to a reservation on Devil’s Lake, North Dakota in 1867, which would seem to correspond to the timing of Caleb’s story. Except that at least one quote refers to the “Devil’s Lake campaign of 1864”! If you Google Devil’s Lake 1864, it comes up with the Treaty of Old Crossing, which was with the Ojibwe (not the Dakota), but the page also discusses a campaign led by General Sibley (who figures in the book), aimed at any remaining Dakota, with mentions of the Red River Valley and Devil’s Lake. (The Red River forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota.) So it seems that the Devil’s Lake campaign mentioned is most likely related to the Spirit Lake Tribe linked above–the discrepancy in dates is most likely because the campaign was in 1864 but the treaty and final “removal” was in 1867.
My reading challenge states that I’m interested in learning this kind of historical, geographical, and demographical information about the state, so already Maltman’s book has proved to be an excellent addition to our list for Minnesota. However, in addition to his impressive historical detail on both sides of the conflict, Maltman is also skilled in his descriptions, whether it be the general landscape:
South and east, the land sloped away in rounded hills that sheltered ponds for cattle and sparse stands of burr oak and silver maple. North and west lay a sea of tallgrass prairie dotted with islands of wheat fields. If I followed the southern curve of the Waraju River, a caramel gleam in the late afternoon sun, I could catch a glimpse of smoke curling up from our cabin on the edge between hill country and grassland, just outside the township. On a hot June day, with dust devils passing over barren earth, the first of two visitors who would alter the course of our family relations walked into our lives.
Or the characters:
Papa spoke to him a language I had never heard before, a rush of clicks and gutturals that brought a hesitant smile to the man’s face. I knew him for an Indian only by the darkness of his skin, more sienna than the brick-red I had imagined, but otherwise he was dressed like a poor farmer: wool pants, a white cotton shirt partly eaten by locusts, and a bent slouch hat with the top cut out. An aquiline nose perched in the center of his weathered face and his broad features were framed by twin silver braids twined with strips of fur. He stood a head shorter than my father. I remember the keen sense of disappointment I felt on viewing my first specimen of the savage race.
Or the (historically accurate) plague of locusts that infests the Minnesota plains during the later timeline of the book:
… locust legions preparing for their invasions northward. They left by morning in great glistening clouds, traveling as far as Polk County the papers would later report, almost to Pembina and the Canadian border. By now we knew not to celebrate. All that remained of our fields was chaff and dust. An inch below the ground ran a white, pulsating river of eggs waiting to hatch next spring.
And, as might be guessed from the title, there are birds in the book, including many bird-related similes and metaphors:
He had lean, hatchet features, a hawk’s profile, and a mane of wheat gold hair. I was a dark, thin child, sparrow-boned and breakable in his grasp. Even as he crushed the air from my lungs with this hug, we shared a wheezy laugh. “Old Eagle Eye,” he called me.
And, as also expected, many of the birds in the book are night birds–either dark, like crows, or nocturnal, like screech owls. But the titular night birds refers more to the legend of the whippoorwills turning into nighthawks, and perhaps to the death associations of crows.
“It was beautiful in those woods, but there was a stump I stayed clear from. A terrible smell came from that place. The crows flocked there.” “What are you saying?” Mother said. “I don’t think your mother ever made it out of those woods alive,” Hazel said.
Or this quote, which gives us a bit of foreshadowing, as we learn later that Jakob was killed at the battle of Antietam:
A whippoorwill started up in the rushes. In the stillness the song of that night bird magnified in their imaginations. Instead of whip-poor-will it sounded like the bird’s song was oh-you’re-kilt. Oh-you’re-killed, oh-you’re-killed, echoed through the dark and they didn’t know if the bird sang for Matthew, or their father far away in Virginia headed toward Miller’s cornfield and Antietam, or for them now.
Or even the bits of superstitious folklore, like this quote about Little Crow, who led the rebelling Dakota during the 1862 conflict:
“They paid that man from Hutchinson five hundred dollars for gunning down Little Crow in a field of raspberries. He didn’t even know what he’d killed until they’d scalped the body and someone saw the corpse had a double-set of teeth and bent wristbones.”
It’s hard to believe, in this day and age, that people once believed this kind of nonsense, attributing supernatural powers and shapeshifting abilities to men–even if those men were part of a “mysterious other,” so to speak.
Unfortunately for our Life List of Birds in Books, most of the birds in The Night Birds are vague, though some are still identifiable. We have a screech owl (Eastern Screech-Owl based on range), wrens, swallows, crows (American), a horned owl (presumably a Great Horned Owl, though the Long-eared would be present and the Eastern Screech-Owl does have “horns”), grouse (by range, most likely the Ruffed Grouse, but possibly the Sharp-tailed), prairie chickens (the Greater Prairie-Chicken has always been much more widespread; the Lesser is a more southern species), chickadees (Black-Capped), eagles (Bald Eagle), blackbirds (the name is used interchangeably with crows and even ravens), whippoorwills (Eastern Whip-poor-will), nighthawks (Common Nighthawk), a loon (Common Loon), and meadowlarks (the range of the Eastern and Western species overlaps right in western Minnesota; the birds apparently can tell each other apart and seldom interbreed, but humans have a harder time). There’s also a nice bit with a Burrowing Owl that is kept as a pet by one of the Dakota in the story, but perhaps the most interesting bird sighting is the Passenger Pigeons:
Birds with violet-colored bellies and flashing wings, bright and liquid. The birds cried out to one another, the lines swirling like milk in a blue bowl. It was a sound they had never heard before, thousands upon thousands of birds compressed into a single area of sky and land, flying so close together they became one voice and myriad voices simultaneously, a blur of motion and sound. The children could distinguish individual cries, a sharp kee-kee repeated countless times over as the birds focused on the lone grove of trees in the endless span of grasslands. … Individually, the passenger pigeons were beautiful. They had long sweeping tails and graceful azure-colored breasts. Their eyes were red jewels, the females dusky and elegant in their fine silver-brown plumage.
Physically, the passenger pigeons looked a lot like the common mourning dove, but studies have shown them to be more closely related to ground doves or pigeons. Still, the inclusion of this species was a good reminder of how human actions can have a dramatic effect on the environment, whether it be the extinction of a once-common American species or global climate change.
Apart from birds, I’m always amazed at some of the parallels I find between books that, on the surface, seem to have no connection. Remember how we’ve read two books for Minnesota (Frozen and These Granite Islands) that had characters with bipolar disorder? Odd. Well, in The Night Birds, we have another instance of selective mutism, as we saw in the main character in Mary Casanova’s Frozen.
Eleven years old, the girl had not spoken a single word since her mother, Jakob’s first wife, Emma, had died of consumption four years earlier.
Here, the character is Hazel, who is the linking character between the two main timelines–and between the two cultures. The oddest part of this coincidence is that I’ve also been reading Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese, in which the narrator’s twin has Asperger’s and is selectively mute for a number of years during his childhood. (This book is not one for this reading challenge, as it takes place mainly in Ethiopia, with parts in New York City and Boston. The author is wonderful with setting, but it doesn’t lend itself to this challenge due to the multiple locations.) But it’s odd that I happened to be reading it right now, which highlights the coincidence.
Another thing of note, that we’ve only seen–briefly and with little explanation–in Nebraska (in The Echo Maker it was briefly mentioned or theorized as a partial cause of Mark’s accident), was the snow blindness that Jakob suffers from while trying to find the family’s milk cow soon after they move to Minnesota from Missouri.
The sun came out and turned the landscape into a single translucent glare, a glittering terrain that looked like thousands of mirrors flickering in the light. A layer of sleet had come down in the night and further glazed the remaining snow. … Green fires flared at the edge of his vision, and had he been raised out here like the Dakota, he would have known this was the first sign of impending snow blindness. Why was his vision shrinking, a circle of darkness closing in on his eyes? Needles of searing pain spiked from his eyes and into his mind. Sight became agony.
And another interesting historical note was the brief discussion of the “Forty-Eighters.” According to the Wikipedia page, these failed German revolutionaries were often progressives who settled in places like Milwaukee or Milford (mentioned in The Night Birds). They purported not to approve of slavery, but from Maltman’s perspective, they seem not to have noticed the hypocrisy of settling on land that had once belonged to the Native Americans–even former (and current) reservation land that was being “reclaimed” by the United States government in clear violation of treaties.
Milford, as it was called then, was primarily inhabited by ’48ers, Germans who had taken part in the failed revolution to bring Democratic reforms to the Old Country.
Yet another area where Maltman sets himself apart from other writers, is in his approach to language. I quite liked his description of the Dakota’s speech. I think this is the first time I’ve read a linguistics explanation for our stereotypical rendering of Native Americans speaking English. That little bit of explanation goes a long way toward making the inclusion less objectionable.
… they miss children. They come, take boys back.” Hazel noticed that Hanyokeyah could only speak English in the present, and sometimes it was hard to tell from his speech what happened in the past and what was happening in the now.
Maltman is also careful to be historically accurate when dealing with various ailments suffered by the characters in his book, whether it be the various poxes and fevers, or rashes like the one that the family suffered that drove them to the Dakota for help.
Later they would learn that the affliction that had troubled them was called “prairie dig” and that settlers in that county often experienced it the first time they cut the sod.
From what I’ve been able to find (Googling “prairie dig” sets off the auto-correct and gives lots of info about “prairie dogs”!), this would have been scabies, which is caused by a particular type of mite burrowing under the skin. In general, it seems that the first time one suffers from them is the worst, with subsequent exposures being less severe. The information from the above link indicates that they have a pretty long incubation period, and it wouldn’t have been as immediate a reaction as it sounds in the book, however, the whole family would probably have all started suffering at the same time, and so perhaps it would have seemed more immediate than it actually was.
Then there were a couple of references to the Kingdom of Jones. Googling this brought up some fascinating but ultimately unrelated information about a Jones County in Mississippi that rebelled against the Confederacy under the leadership of a man named Newt Knight (and a related movie starring Matthew McConaughey; I’ll have to look into this some more when we get to Mississippi…). In the end, though, I wasn’t able to find any information about a Minnesota Kingdom of Jones related to the Indian Wars. Maltman says this:
After the war, there was a group of men calling themselves “The Kingdom of Jones,” that organized for protection. People were still so very terrified of Indians. They hadn’t yet caught Little Crow.
This implies that the Minnesota version of the Kingdom of Jones was organized to eliminate Native Americans in an attempt to protect whites in the region.
You think it should kill you, the loneliness. But deep inside you feel a small red flame of hatred awakening in the emptiness. It keeps you warm. You fall in with men who are as hateful as you, as haunted as you. You don’t call each other by name. Everyone is Jones. You are men of the kingdom, the Kingdom of Jones.
This quote, however, gives the impression that the organization was more like the KKK–much more racist than merely protective. Members of the Minnesota organization, knowing that their actions were not above reproach, apparently all called themselves “Jones,” to disguise their identities. It’s a disturbing idea, but unfortunately, not an absurd one. Given Maltman’s attention to historical detail, it’s one that I’m inclined to give credence to.
Speaking of historical fact, I found the information Maltman gives about the corpses of those hanged in Mankato in the Wikipedia article about the Dakota War of 1862. The article claims that the skeleton of Cut Nose (and perhaps others) were eventually returned in the late 20th century, but I found Hazel’s musings poignant.
“The doctors took them,” he said in a high, piping voice. “They cast dice for the corpses. Dr. Mayo won the body of Cut-Nose.” … In the cool darkness of his basement some warrior had been carved up and would have to carry those mutilations with him into the afterlife as his spirit traveled the path across the Milky Way.
As for the inclusion of Jesse James? Well, the interactions between the gang (and later the brothers) and Maltman’s fictional characters is obviously fabricated, but the time and location of James’ actions in the book coincide with historic events surrounding the gang’s attempted robbery of the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota.
One minor quibble I have with Maltman, though, is over the inclusion of Odin and his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn–Thought and Memory (note that Maltman uses the older spellings–Woden, Hunin and Munin–to fit his time period). Jakob was from Germany, though, not Scandinavia. However, the mythology of the ravens may have fit with the themes of The Night Birds too well for Maltman to resist.
some tale from his childhood land, perhaps of the god Woden who carried two ravens on his shoulder, Hunin and Munin, understanding and memory. Each morning he released the birds into the world and waited for the news they brought. When she was a child her father would heft her onto his broad shoulder, a dizzying height near the nest of his dark beard. “Hazel,” he would say, “You are my raven.” The ground spread out below her while he spoke those words. “I will send you out, but you must always return.”
Overall, The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman was a wonderful addition to our reading list for Minnesota. We learned a lot of interesting historical information about the state, its geography and peoples, and we also got some wonderful landscape imagery. What a wonderful way to wrap up the state! I’ll see you soon in Idaho!