BOOKS | Thomas Maltman's "The Night Birds" dramatizes the Dakota War of 1862

The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman (Soho Press) is a historical novel of life in south-central Minnesota in the 1850s and 1860s. I grew up in New Ulm and I was 10 years old when the 100th anniversary of what was then called "the Sioux Uprising" was commemorated. The stories I heard then have stayed with me to this day.

This book told me more about the hardships of life for both the German immigrants and the Dakota who were being uprooted and I gained more understanding of the losses they both suffered. It also became clear to me that there was no way that these historical events could have ended any differently than they did.

The book begins in the summer of 1876. Narrator Asa Sanger's family is struggling to survive the devastation created by the locust plague and hearing stories about the James/Younger gang rumored to be heading their way. Asa's aunt Hazel is released from the asylum in St. Peter and returned to the family. She brings with her secrets from her past—secrets that Asa has always felt the presence of. Hazel begins to tell the story of her family, beginning with their departure from Missouri in 1859, an exodus compelled by her father's support of the abolitionist movement. The Civil War was looming, causing more unrest among the settlers, and leaving many families without the help and protection of the men sent to fight.

As a work of historical fiction, The Night Birds manages to have both too much history and too much fiction. Maltman tries to incorporate every historical event that was happening at the time of this novel—it's unrealistic to believe that one family could experience a tar-and-feathering in Missouri, the locust plague in Minnesota, friendships and then war with the Dakota, a visit by Jesse James and his gang, and a father leaving to fight in the Civil War. I recognized many of the locations referred to; however, the Senger family settles in the fictional town of Kingdom and all that we really know is that the family started in New Ulm and then walked from there.

I found it hard to follow the changes in times and narrators. That said, I did enjoy the end of the book with its plot twists and I certainly gained more historical knowledge about the conflicts and the growing pains that the United States was going through. Most importantly, I now have a better understanding of both sides of this important part of our history.

Jean Gabler (jmgabler [at] stthomas [dot] edu) is program director for undergraduate business programs at the University of St. Thomas.

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Jean Gabler's picture
Jean Gabler

Jean Gabler (jmgabler [at] stthomas [dot] edu) is the assistant director for undergraduate business programs at the University of St. Thomas. She lives in Merriam Park.