Set in the 1860s and '70s, Maltman's superb debut evokes a Midwest lacerated by clashes between European and Native American, slaveowner and abolitionist, killer and healer, nature and culture. Asa Senger, a lonely 14-year-old boy, is at first wary when his father's sister, Hazel, arrives at his parents' Minnesota home after a long stay in a faraway asylum, but he comes to cherish the mysterious Hazel's warmth and company. Through her stories, Asa learns of his family's bitter past: the lore and dreams of their German forebears, their place in the bitter divide over slavery and, most complex of all, the bond between Hazel and the Dakotan warrior Wanikiya that deepens despite the violence between their peoples. Maltman excels at giving even his most harrowing scenes an understated realism and at painting characters who are richly, sometimes disturbingly, human. The novel sustains its tension right to the moment it ends with an adult Asa at peace with his own complicated heritage-a tentative redemption that, the book's events as well as our own world's disorders suggest, is the best for which the human heart can hope. (Aug.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Night Birdsby Thomas Maltman
The intertwining story of three generations of German immigrants to the Midwest—their clashes with slaveholders, the Dakota uprising and its aftermath—is seen through the eyes of young Asa Senger, named for an uncle killed by an Indian friend. It is the unexpected appearance of Asa’s aunt Hazel, institutionalized since shortly after the mass hangings of thirty-eight Dakota warriors in Mankato in 1862, that reveals to him that the past is as close as his own heartbeat.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
In his debut novel, Maltman traces the intertwining stories of two generations of the Senger family, who fled sectarian fighting in Civil War-era Missouri to settle on the Minnesota prairie. When Aunt Hazel, long thought dead, is released from the state mental hospital, she brings with her a hidden part of the family history-an account of the family's involvement with the neighboring Dakota and its subsequent role in the Sioux uprising. One measure of successful historical fiction is whether it transmits a strong sense of place, and on this count, Maltman succeeds admirably. But while lush narrative passages aptly evoke the setting, a lack of character development leaves us wondering about those who populate the landscape. Hazel's storytelling is a central feature of the novel, but her voice is neither as strong nor as consistent as one would wish. However, Maltman avoids the romanticism often found in fictional treatments of Native Americans and writes a novel that, despite its flaws, earns our admiration for its ambition and tenacity. Recommended for all libraries.
*Alex Award Winner*
"We all set our sights on the Great American Novel. . . . [Thomas Maltman] comes impressively close to laying his hands on the grail."
—Boston Globe, Madison Smartt Bell
"Thomas Maltman's debut novel, The Night Birds, soars and sings like a feathered angel."
“Maltman’s prose and pacing flow from an expert hand. . . . His gaze is unflinching and balanced. . . . And while there is much loss in the novel, in the end there is salvation.”
—Denver Post, Robin Vidimos
“Maltman’s writing is most lucid when he explores the German folklore, Dakota mysticism, and pioneer spirituality that shape his characters’ understanding of their own harsh world.”
“[Maltman] excels at giving even his most harrowing scenes an understated realism and at painting characters who are richly, sometimes disturbingly human. The novel sustains its tension right to the moment it ends.”
—Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
“[A] flawless sense of history marked by its most revealing—and harrowing—details.”
PRAISE FOR LITTLE WOLVES
"Here’s one I’ll recommend—Tom Maltman’s written an ambitious mythic thriller that hums with energy and portent. Set under brooding prairie skies, Little Wolves has modern psychoses and generational wickedness, ravening devils and uneasy saints. It shifts and dodges like wind, and it rings with conviction and confidence. What more can a reader ask?"
—Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome
"A masterwork of fiction. Not just a good book that’s interesting on multiple levels, but a great book that will stand the test of time...I was completely spellbound. Add to this the mysteries surrounding the town and characters, and I felt, often, as though I were reading some contemporary version of Dostoyevsky."
—Peter Geye, author of Safe From The Sea
"A complicated portrait of a prairie town, a meditation on violence, a fantasia of myth and folklore, and a knockout murder mystery, Little Wolves is haunting, at times terrifying, a gothic cousin to Kent Haruf's Plainsong. I loved this book."
—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, The Wilding and Refresh, Refresh
"Little Wolves weaves the lives of a father, a son, a pastor’s wife, and a community in this compelling mystery of murder and secrets. His brilliant use of historical and mythical elements are combined with everyday life in ways that are hair-raising and true. Maltman has a gift for framing unforgettable characters. Everything about this book asks us to examine life more closely."
—Elizabeth Cox, Author of The Slow Moon
"This novel churns with the tension of a building prairie thunderstorm. Tom Maltman knows that dark truths can be hidden under open skies, and he knows the secrets of the bloodstained ax in the barn."
—John Reimringer, author of Vestments
"The poetry of this prose and the suspense of the plot, along with the intensity of characterization will have many readers comparing Thomas Maltman to Cormac McCarthy—that greatest of compliments—for very good reason. This novel is a work of high art by the real thing."
—Laura Kasischke, author of Space, in Chains and The Life Before Her Eyes
"Absolutely fantastic. Unnerving, gorgeously written.... The writing is haunting.”
—Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You
“Took my breath away.... as rich in myth and metaphors as Cormac McCarthy's “The Road.’”
“Part allegory, part mystery and pure poetry, layered with Norse mythology and Anglo Saxon narratives, Maltman's second novel is dark, redemptive and very beautiful.”
“Maltman makes his leading characters so sensitive that you may shudder at the same revelations that so appall them.”
"Layered with literary and mythic allusions.... A satisfying and unforgettable read."
—School Library Journal
“So good, you'll forget about icy sidewalks and a dead battery...Magical story, magical writing.”
—Twin Cities Pioneer Press
“Little Wolves is beautifully written, both in the style of prose and pacing of the narrative.”
—Grand Rapids Herald-Review
"In gorgeous prose, Maltman conjures both the irrational suspicion and the heartwarming connections forged in a small town during times of trauma."
“Little Wolves is reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, but grittier...a great read with loads of literary merit."
“Saturated with violence, Anglo-Saxon mythology and parochial pettiness, Maltman's novel is an unsettling work of first-rate fiction.”
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Read an Excerpt
THE NIGHT BIRDSa novel
By THOMAS MALTMAN
Soho Press Inc.Copyright © 2007 Thomas Maltman
All right reserved.
I grew up in the shadow of the Great Sioux War which started here in Minnesota in 1862. Born four months after thirty-eight Dakota warriors were hanged en masse in Mankato the day after Christmas, I was named for an uncle, Asa, killed during the conflict. Sometimes, lying awake after the wicks were turned down, I listened to the wind outside and wondered what I inherited along with his name. I grew up mindful of the deep scars people carried from the war, but did not know the story behind them. My mother, Cassie, a slender, flaxen-haired woman, became pinch-mouthed if I asked her questions.
When my papa still attended church he never stepped forward to take communion and he told me he would beat me within an inch of my life if I pressed him on the matter. The second summer the locusts returned to our land, Papa stopped going to church entirely. He stood in his barren fields watching my mother and me ride away in the buckboard. Locusts sparked around him like hot specks of grease in a griddle. He stood in his infested fields, watching us ride to church as he crushed the insects in his clenched fists until the greenish-black blood ran down into his shirt sleeves.
I grew up with the past coursing under the surface of my family life like some dark underground river that I could sense but not touch. Against the dozens of pamphlets published far and wide about the conflict-A Thrilling Tale of Captivity, and The Red Man's Revenge-I had the measure of my parents' silence. Just under layers of topsoil I sensed the story waiting there and knew that it had something to do with sorrow, and that it made them afraid to this very day.
The year 1876 was the fourth year of the locusts. What I thought about that long ago afternoon as I scanned the prairies was that there is beauty in devastation. Passing clouds of locusts clothed the sun, on the move now that a new brood had hatched and eaten our countryside down to the bone. Their many wings were jeweled by the sunlight. A million scarabs of gold moved across parched ground and the land hummed with the song of their gathering hunger.
With no crop rows to harrow and tend, my papa and I passed time most days by climbing the Indian watchtower built in 1871 by Silas Easton, from which we could look out over the stripped farmlands and the oxbow of the Waraju River, a shallow stream in this dry season. Papa's duties as constable of Kingdom Township required him to spend a portion of his week scanning the frontier for hostiles, though no Dakota had raided this territory in over a decade. 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 tall-grass 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. He came across no-man's land abandoned by the Vajen family two years before, and something in the way he moved bothered me. A lone man moving at an easy trot. "Papa," I said, giving his shoulder a gentle shake. "There's something coming."
The stranger spoke no English and his lips were crusted with black blood from the locusts he had eaten to sustain him on his journey. 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. He didn't carry any weapons and there was a hint of senility in those black eyes shaded by the hat. I looked off to the north trying to imagine his journey across hundreds of miles of land his kind had been banished from a decade ago, his bare feet somehow unbloodied by the razor grass and stripped stubble of dead wheat fields. The hesitant smile the old man wore faded when Papa brought his half-stock prairie rifle up to his shoulder and cocked the hammer.
The township of Kingdom curved over the top of a series of humpbacked hills shaped like a dragon. Hedged by dark woodlands along the backside, the dragon's sleeping head opened out to an oceanic span of grasslands the Waraju River flooded in rainy years. From the grasslands came wolves and locusts and now this Indian.
While we were still a long ways off, my teacher, Mr. Simons, had spotted us with his looking glass and rang the bell of the church that also served as our schoolhouse, ensuring a large crowd when we came through town with our captive.
The higher you climbed the dragon-shaped hill the more prosperous things became. The floodplains were inhabited by immigrant farmers like the Ecksteins-Bohemians who adjusted to the plague by cooking the locusts in a buttery dish they called "fricassee." At the base of the dragon's tail, you passed the grist mill where farmers came to grind their grain. Here the road split a graveyard of leaning crosses bearing the names of German settlers killed during the Indian uprising. Up a small rise, the Schilling family had struck together some dour clapboard buildings that passed for the town's dry goods store and livery. My father was the constable and his single room jailhouse, which he said would blow down in a strong wind, squatted next to the livery barn and blacksmith shop. A rutted dusty road continued up the dragon's spine until you reached a brick hotel with ornate columns the Meyers had built in the hopeful days when they thought the railroad might pass through town, and onward to the whitewashed, country church from which the bell now resounded. Mr. Simons was fond of ringing that bell.
It seemed people had come from all over the county, summoned by the sound. Farmers abandoned their useless work in the fields at the promise of some new glimmer of entertainment. There were shopkeepers in soiled aprons and women in bonnets so deep only the beaks of their noses showed. All of them hovered around us, a low excited murmur rippling through the ranks when they saw what we had. Papa had taken the Indian's slouch hat and shirt, and the old man jogged behind us, his bare chest glistening, his wrists bound, a leather cord encircling his throat.
For a moment we all paused outside the jailhouse. In the distance there was the everpresent drone of the locust hordes taking flight now that dark had fallen. If the crowd was disappointed in our captive, the first prisoner my papa had captured since a group of horse thieves troubled the county two years before, they didn't show it. One woman, her voice hoarse, kept calling the Indian a rot tuefel in low, Germanic undertones that sounded like a person spitting. If the crowd hoped for a show they received some measure of it when the Indian raised his head and began to address us in his mother tongue.
I didn't know any of the words, but watched my father carefully. Papa's lips narrowed. The entire crowd froze and Myra Schilling would later claim that the Indian put a spell on us. At first he seemed to be speaking to all of us, but then his eyes found me standing beside my father and I stopped breathing entirely. He held my gaze for only a second. The dull, faintly senile luster was replaced by a dark, shining intelligence. Then the Indian's speech came to halt as my father jerked the end of his cord and choked off his words. He was dragged inside and locked in the one-room cell. All through the evening, people paraded through the jailhouse to admire the Indian and praise my father. While a few pitied the prisoner, most of the talk I heard was darkened by the memory of past events. We did right to hire an old Indian fighter, I heard them say. I bet there is a bounty on this one's head. What do you reckon he was intending? Probably sent to scout us out. He's come to prepare the way. Don't take him to Fort Ridgely. We can deal with his kind here.
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.
In the dark a thing turns on itself. As long as the locusts were here, the chickens had to be kept penned in their sour-smelling coop. Otherwise the hens devoured the locusts like gluttons until all you tasted and smelled when their eggs fried was the sulfurous, black taint of insect blood. That night I found another hen dead in the straw, pecked to death. The other hens huffed and ruffled out their feathers, a jury of malcontents, while I held up the kerosene lantern and inspected the mottled corpse. The body was already going stiff and I knew the meat was ruined. We were down to a dozen hens and a sickly rooster now. With the weather so hot and space tight and enclosed, the hens turned on one another. They were not so different from the locusts which cannibalized each other when nothing else was left to eat. They were not so different from human beings, as I would learn that summer.
I carried the dead pullet by the talons as I walked back to the cabin. Locusts crunched under my boot heels and some took flight and battered themselves like moths against the lantern. Crunch, crunch. Each step released a sour smell of innards and blood and I was grateful not to be barefoot like so many other country children. Think of every terrible sound you have heard-a saw on bone, a man grinding his teeth in anger-and you will know what I heard as I crossed that field every night between the cabin and the henhouse. The hen's broken neck flapped loosely against my pant leg. When I felt something crawling against my fingers, I knew the maggots had got to her. Rather than carry her back I flung her out into the dark, onto a moving carpet of insects.
Inside I skimmed a few dead locusts from the wash basin and splashed cool water on my face to erase the image of the dead pullet. Papa surprised me then, coming up behind me and lifting me in a great bear hug. "You did good today, boy," he said.
I felt the sinewy strength in his arms, smelled his sweat and the whisky on his breath. 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. He was sunburned, the skin on his long nose peeling. "We'll make a proper soldier of you yet."
Then Mother called from the table saying, "Set him down and come get your grub," and the moment was over too soon.
All through dinner, fried fish and buckwheat bread, they talked about the Indian and what his capture meant for us now.
"Do you think he's an important figure?" Ma asked.
Papa shrugged. "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."
"Will they still pay a bounty after all these years?"
Papa didn't know. "But five hundred dollars," he said. "Imagine what we could do with just one hundred. I could buy back the percheron from the Schillings. We'd have enough to live on until the hoppers leave." A few stray locusts crawled over his dinner plate and he pinched them absentmindedly between his fingers.
"We'd have enough to buy passage out of this country for good."
"You know I won't ever leave here," he said.
From across the table, I saw her eyes glisten. Behind her a laundry line was strung from one end of the cabin to the other, clothes hung to dry over the stove where the locusts couldn't get to them and devour the fabric. The cabin was a simple two-room structure, not so different from the one Papa had grown up in with six siblings on this very same ground. That cabin burned to the ground with the rest of town in 1862. When all the ashes had settled and the war was done and every last Dakota chased out of Minnesota or strung up from the gallows, my father rebuilt over the old root cellar. Our cabin nestled in the crook of a low hill, sheltered from the north wind. A good place, if unlucky.
"Things are changing," Papa said. "I can feel it. Things are turning back to the good."
When I spoke they looked startled, they had been so absorbed in their own conversation. I was quiet enough as a child that my parents often forgot me. "What was his name, Papa? The Indian, didn't he tell you a name?"
"He called himself Hah-pahn, which means second born. I knew it for a lie, though. That was only his childhood name. An Indian will tell all sorts of lies to save his own skin."
"Did you know him from the before times?"
He shook his head. "Been a long time since I spoke Dakota. It come back to me, easy as sin."
Ma got up to tend to the dishes. "You don't think they'll lynch him before we can collect?"
His laugh came out like a low, rumbling cough. "That's only talk," he said. "That's all they're good for. Even liquored, I don't see a one of them killing a man. Not that it's a bad idea. It might have been easier if I had just shot him when I saw what he was." His voice lowered. "Must be two hundred miles between here and the reservation in the Dakotas. A long ways on foot."
"Why did he come here, Papa?"
"Said he was homesick. Imagine that. He said he was dying and wanted to see the place of two rivers one last time."
In the washbasin my mother let the dishes clatter together. "Don't you go getting sentimental," she said. "He's worth money to us."
"Don't worry," Papa said. "I pegged him for a liar from the first. I haven't forgotten how we suffered. Any trust I had for Indians died a long time back."
Lying atop my sheets that night I felt as uneasy as the 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.
I heard the locusts stirring, the scrape of their wings a rasping drone like a vast machine humming through the night. Here was a thing of wonder. That multitude of insects communicated as one great hive, one mind, while I lay there, one boy, with nobody in the world who knew his secret thoughts. I was stuck thinking on the Indian. He would have walked straight past our watchtower while my father dozed if I hadn't said anything. My stomach clenched when I remembered my father talking about the Indian's homeward journey. It wasn't right for me to feel sympathy for his kind, but I did.
A tallow candle made a circle of light on my nightstand. I picked up my Bible and turned to a page at random. This was a kind of divination I had heard about in school. You closed your eyes in prayer and then opened up the Bible to see what message God had for you. That night my fingers blindly found Hebrews, Chapter Thirteen. The first verse spoke of brotherly love, which didn't help me all that much since I was an only child. I started to close the book when something caught my eye. Verse two read: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unaware." I read over that verse three times, my spine tingling. What had we locked inside that jail cell? What was God trying to tell me now?
Excerpted from THE NIGHT BIRDS by THOMAS MALTMAN Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Maltman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Thomas Maltman's essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in many literary journals. He has an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato and he lives in the Twin Cities. His first novel, The Night Birds, won several national awards, including an Alex Award, a Spur Award, and the Friends of American Writers Literary Award. In 2009 the American Library Association chose The Night Birds as an "Outstanding Book for the College Bound." His most recent novel, Little Wolves, is also published by Soho.
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Although I have been a resident of Minnesota for 49 years, the history of the Dakota uprising of 1862 was never presented in a way that interested me. Nightbirds, by Thomas Maltman, completely changed that perception. The book is historical fiction but both the settlers and the Indians actions are based on real events. As in any good historical fiction it is the characters and the readers attachement to them that turn the book into a page turner. Maltman's characters in both the settler and Indian camps are sympathetic and compelling, their behavior fascinating and their actions remarkable.
A fascinating, well researched and well written page turner. Very good historical fiction.
At first it was a little hard to follow but soon smoothed out and I didnt want to put it down
It is exceedingly rare I award a novel five stars. This work earned it and then some. The prose and characters trenched deeply into my unconscious and I've been carrying this story for several days after finishing. I highly recommend.
I was not thrilled and had difficulty. It seemed to need some serious editing. I had to force myself to read at the beginning of the book. It got better about half way through. Did not like the switching back and forth in time lines. The characters with duplicate names was confusing and trying to keep track of which time frame I was in. The subject matter itself is interesting and compelling. Horrific, sad story for all concerned.
Night Birds is a book that has all of what is good in historical fiction -- the proper balance of empathy for both sides, with attention to true historical fact and detail that somehow remains impartial. Maltman, an excellent poet as well as a novelist, effuses his prose with superb sensory detail about 1862 Minnesota without the usual Little House on the Prairie idealistic gloss: you can taste the dry desperation in every locust-ridden field. That this book also won an Alex Award does not surprise me; as a teacher, I note that most literature aimed at young adults is laden with the elements of their fast-paced techno-laden worlds, but lacking in something more. Maltman offers them page-turning insight into not only characters and situations they can relate to -- first love, loyalty, family struggles, identity crises -- but also a better understanding of a theme barely covered in their history classes: a more complete picture of the collective memory that is American History. I highly recommend this book to any teachers who use a combined history/literature curriculum for their classes to further an understanding of the Western Indian Wars of the latter 19th century.