Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

A poetic imagining, from both sides of a cultural frontier


The Night Birds
By Thomas Maltman
Soho, 370 pp., $24

In the Minnesota territory, in the summer of 1862, Dakota Sioux led by Little Crow went to war on the white settlers of the region -- responding to a painfully familiar pattern of corrupt and unjust treatment by the United States and its representatives (legitimate or otherwise), broken treaties, broken promises, and persistent encroachment on their lands.

Little Crow's warriors struck the Lower Sioux Agency hard, destroyed nearly 40 US soldiers in an ambush, destroyed the village of New Ulm, launched a massive assault on Fort Ridgely, and, after retreating from the siege of the fort, surrounded a burial party at Birch Coulee and killed or wounded nearly a third of its number. Eventually the hostile Dakota were defeated by troops led by Colonel Henry Sibley, known to them as the Long Trader.

More than 300 captured Dakota were perfunctorily tried and then sentenced to death, but President Lincoln set aside the sentences of all but 38 of them. Their hanging, which took place in Mankato, Minn., on Dec. 26, 1862, was nevertheless the largest mass execution in US history. According to Thomas Maltman's wrenching description, the doomed Dakota were shamed, in the terms of their own culture, by being masked by the hangmen before they died. Today, in the 21st century, there is something distressingly contemporary in the image of those hooded victims of the US government.

The 1862 climax of the Dakota conflict is the kernel of Maltman's first novel, "The Night Birds." Scarcely any serious American writer has ever set out to write an acceptable minor work (though such projects are not uncommon in other countries); rather we all set our sights on the Great American Novel, in one of its protean forms. This consistent hubris has produced one of the most vital literatures in the world, along with plenty of comical overreaching. If Maltman attempts a little too much in this first outing, he also comes impressively close to laying his hands on the grail.

Not content with his wonderfully nuanced story of the complex relationship between Minnesota settlers and the Sioux before, during, and after the crisis of 1862, Maltman is also determined to cover the struggle over slavery in Missouri during the 1850s (including a runaway-slave episode that escaped, perhaps, from "Uncle Tom's Cabin"), a good chunk of the Civil War, and the depredations of the James Gang in the 1870s. With so many threads in the story, it seems impossible for all to run true, but somehow Maltman makes sense of most of them.

One thread is the story of Hazel Senger, a character inspired in some respects by Sarah Wakefield, captured during the Little Crow battles and later recovered by the settlers. We first meet Hazel in 1876 when, released from an asylum in St. Peter, she seeks shelter with her brother Caleb and his wife, Cassie (also survivors of the Dakota conflict), and see her through the eyes of their son Asa, one of a number of first-person narrators operating in this novel. Hazel's return unbalances not only her brother's family but the whole community, as it tends to pry open the encysted wounds of 1862.

In those days, Hazel and her siblings became friendly with some Dakota children living nearby. The tragic romance between Hazel and the young Dakota Wanikiya puts Romeo and Juliet to shame. It begins when Hazel heals Wanikiya from a serious gunshot wound he's received from her half brother, also named Asa. Captured during the first attacks on the settlers, Hazel sees Wanikiya blow Asa's brains out. Soon thereafter she is adopted by Blue Sky Woman to replace her daughter Winona, who hung herself after being raped by Asa, and shortly after the adoption, Hazel kills Wanikiya's brother, Pretty Singer, to protect herself from rape.

Yes, a little contrivance is required to get all these events into the story, but the symmetrical pattern of betrayal and retribution seems perfectly true to the larger and equally tragic pattern of settler-Sioux relations in those days. Hazel and Wanikiya emerge from the ruin of their personal history to create what can be called, without irony, a loving marriage -- though under such circumstances it doesn't last long. Upon her reluctant return to "civilization," Hazel is damned as a traitor, and finds her last resort in madness.

Nearly half the novel takes place inside the Dakota world, and here Maltman breathes life into what must have been an enormous amount of research. "The Night Birds" gives a vital sense of the force and coherence of Sioux culture that few outsiders have ever been able to achieve. To survive among the Dakota, Hazel must not only replace but actually become Winona. Her son with Wanikiya, who lives into adolescence without knowing the truth of his origin, eventually has to braid an identity out of the two traditions. Part of the tragedy of this novel is that such a reconciliation between the settlers and the Sioux didn't happen (though perhaps it could have) on a larger scale.

The mystic fatalism that suffuses "The Night Birds" comes from both sides of this cultural frontier, and often it is beautifully expressed. A Dakota view: "The old ones spoke of stones raining from the firmament at night and plowing furrows in the earth. . . . These were the stone dreamers who carried round pebbles wrapped in swan's down and could send out the tiny stones to find missing children, lost treasures, the impending future, for the stones were everywhere and could see all things." In Hazel's reverie: "Most of what we know of God in this world is His absence. . . . If faith were easy, it would have little worth."

Madison Smartt Bell's most recent book is "Toussaint Louverture: A Biography." He teaches at Goucher College.