Authors: Thomas Maltman
“Did I ever tell you about your grandmother?”
“A thousand times,” the boy replies. “You kept telling me about her all winter long.”
But when I am quiet, he urges me on, “Papa, I suppose I wouldn’t mind if you told me once more.”
“That is where she was sent after the hangings.”
He sets his hands on his hips and peers down into the valley, chewing on his lower lip. “It looks scary,” he says. “She must have been brave.” “It isn’t such a bad place,” I tell him. “From up here, the view is nice. It’s not far from where Daniel ended his journey.”
The boy kneels beside me and pulls out a dandelion growing in the devil grass. He doesn’t ask any more questions, just takes the trowel and begins to work cleaning this spot of land. His face is still speckled with scabs from old measles sores. I can see his grandmother rising up in his eyes, stripping away his sickness.
Two crows come down and land in a nearby burr oak to watch us work. The boy picks up a stone and balances his arm as if to throw it, but something stops him. He kneels back in the grass, watching the birds warily. I smile at him. “Hunin and Munin,” I say. “Like brothers, they return. Or so your great-grandfather Jakob would say.”
“Yes,” my boy says. “I remember their names. Memory and Understanding.”
IVE YEARS AGO,
while preparing to move to
Little House on the Prairie
country—where I was to join my wife Melissa for the first year of our marriage—I happened upon a children’s book about growing up in pioneer America. This book touched upon the Dakota Conflict and the hangings in Mankato. The scope of the bloodshed staggered me. Growing up out West I had never heard of this pivotal historical event, since it is so often overshadowed by the Civil War. The book mentioned two things that triggered my imagination. I read of Sarah Wakefield, who married a warrior named Chaska to protect herself. Later, Sarah was vilified in the press for trying to save him from hanging. The book also told of Snana, a grieving Dakota mother who adopted Mary Schmidt and cared for her like a daughter throughout the war. Both stories fused in my brain and I felt compelled to set something down on paper. Then I discovered that the congregation where my wife—a Lutheran pastor—accepted her first call was a mere five miles from the Lower Sioux Agency which was burned to the ground in 1862. I felt this story reaching for me from out of time and knew I had to tell it.
That first summer of exploration was a glorious time. Green fields spread out under a July sun. I was newly married and had two months’ freedom before I started work teaching high school. My wife tolerated my newfound obsession, as I went down to the basement to start work on a novel, not knowing what I was getting us in for. She read that first middling draft, forty pages later, and saw something there to encourage me to keep going. A year later, I enrolled in MSU, Mankato, where I went on to earn my MFA in creative writing. There I met professors and lifelong friends who shaped how I write. Terry Davis instilled in me the principle of narrative generosity. Roger Sheffer helped me learn to sculpt my prose. Friends like Roger Hart and too many others to mention read early drafts over the summer and provided constructive criticism. This book wouldn’t exist without their help.
Though this is a work of fiction, it also would not have been possible without research. I am indebted to the hard-working historians at the Lower Sioux Agency who opened up their archives and shared their gathered knowledge. Certain books in particular sparked my imagination and their truths are woven into the text of my narrative. I highly recommend these sources for further exploration:
Lucy Leavenworth Wilder Morris.
Old Rail Fence Corners: Frontier Tales Told by Minnesota Pioneers.
This book was my constant companion in the early drafts. Though pioneer accounts are spare in detail, read together the texture of a lost world emerges. What do whippoorwills sound like to a woman missing her husband? Do cows get homesick? How do you make sour-emptying bread or soap from ash and lye?
This Boston University–educated doctor, present at Wounded Knee, grew up Dakota and fled with his people after the conflict. His memories of his boyhood are both nostalgic and haunting. His
also includes many fine folk tales. The story of Eya the Destroyer, which Hanyokeyah tells Wanikiya, is adapted from this work.
Ozark Magic and Folklore.
This is the single most entertaining collection of folklore on water-witches and “Holy Rollers” that I have ever read. Randolph traveled through the Ozark region interviewing soothsayers and collecting their lore. Sometimes, it seems these country folk were pulling his leg. I found Hazel’s blood prayer in this book, along with many of the tidbits from Jakob’s
Book of Wonders.
The Sioux Uprising of 1862.
This is considered the most balanced accounting of the conflict. A must-read for any interested in this history.
Alan Woolworth and Gary Clayton Anderson.
Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862.
This book offers a collection of thirty-six narratives from the Dakota perspective. Joe Coursolle’s story, mentioned in passing in the novel, is stunning.
Six Weeks in the Sioux Teepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity.
Sarah’s accounting is remarkable for its compassion. She was pilloried by society for speaking out on behalf of her protector, Chaska.
Amos E. Oneroad, Alanson B. Skinner, and Laura L. Anderson.
Being Dakota: Tales and Traditions of the Sisseton and Wah-petons.
A wonderful book for lovers of folklore. It was here that I first encountered the tree-dweller, Canotina.
Over Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.
Some consider Shultz’s compilation of narratives the most exciting of the historical accounts.
Every fiction writer who approaches this time period does so in the shadow of Manfred. Manfred was inspired by the letters General Sibley wrote to his wife. He begins his narrative in the fictional Skywater, based on the Lake Shetek massacre.
Samuel L. Pond.
The Dakota or Sioux in Minnesota As They Were in 1834.
Samuel Pond spent twenty years as a missionary among the Dakota. His work, while occasionally condescending, provides numerous ethnographic insights.
There are too many other great books to list here. When people in our community heard I was writing a novel about the conflict, many stepped forward with stories passed down to them. History, I found while researching, is very much alive.
One day in particular stands out in my memory. While attending an event at the Lower Sioux agency, I ran into a descendant of a German settler in the parking lot. When he heard about my novel, he squeezed my arm and told me the story of his grandfather witnessing his family’s massacre while hiding in the trees. “They don’t tell it how it happened anymore,” he said, his eyes bright, nodding toward the agency. That same afternoon I met a Dakota Indian who lowered his eyes when he heard about my project. “Be careful how you tell the story,” he told me in a quiet voice. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that if I told the story right neither man would be happy. I have been as faithful as possible to historical fact while writing this novel, but my ultimate loyalty has always been to the characters who found a voice in my imagination, as I hope they have in yours.
OM MALTMAN’S ESSAYS,
poetry, and fiction have recently been published in
Georgetown Review, Great River Review, Main Channel Voices, Rock & Sling,
a journal of literature, art, and faith, and
Under the Sun.
Midwest Poetry Review
published his chapbook of poems,
Hour of the Red Tide.
He currently teaches creative writing and literature at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
The Night Birds
is his first novel.