The Night Birds
American history, the natives versus the new settlers, does not make pretty reading. The Night Birds is a fictional telling of the Great Sioux War, the Dakota people’s conflict and the Mankato hangings of 1862 in Minnesota. It is a grim topic and a classic illustration of what will happen if one culture, regarding itself as superior, moves in on another.
Well written and well told, the novel looks back from 1876 to the incidents that became the massacre of German settlers in 1862, and their retaliation. Narrated by young Asa, whose father and mother were involved and don’t want to talk about it, the story weaves from the locust-plagued present to the past of 1862; a skillful weaving by a writer who cares to write more than a polemic or an excuse.
Asa struggles to create a good relationship with his mother, Cassie, and understand his father’s behaviour. When an unknown aunt turns up, secrets come tumbling out. For Aunt Hazel is the key, the link to the past, that opens all the locked minds and memories. They are not pretty ones, as Asa’s mother and father—indeed, many in the community—have much to hide. The epilogue gives a final, if somewhat rosy-tinted, perspective to Asa’s story.
This is a book to read slowly and thoughtfully. Follow the Biblical clues and Aunt Hazel’s tales of what happened, and wonder if we’d do any better today.