Saturday, March 7, 2009

My book's been out for awhile, so I wanted to post some of my favorite reviews before they vanish from the web entirely.. This one below came from Tad Simons, the art critic at Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine: The Best of the Twin Cities. The review came out months after the book was print and was a wonderful surprise. The other book feaured is Warren Read's The Lyncher in Me, which I still look forward to reading.
Hang Time

Two of the most notorious incidents in Minnesota history provide the backdrop for books that grapple with our collective shame in very different ways.
April 2008
By Tad Simons

When it comes to lynchings, Minnesota does not have a stellar record. More than a few times in our state’s history people have opted for the expedience of the rope over the plodding rule of law, and each time it has happened, whether the motive was to hang a few black men or rid the prairie of Indians, a wave of shame and guilt has rippled through Minnesota’s collective conscience.

Minnesotans are good people by and large, not given to bursts of vengeance, but these tragedies are part of our legacy, and though we might wish otherwise, all of us share the responsibility for making sure such things never happen again. One of the ways we do this is by continuing to tell the stories of these unfortunate events; or, as two Minnesota– bred authors have done in their new books (one fiction, the other nonfiction), tell the story behind the story.
Thomas Maltman’s novel, The Night Birds, is set in the prairie outside of New Ulm in the decades before and after the infamous 1862 Dakota uprising, which resulted in the massacre of scores of white settlers and the subsequent hanging in Mankato, after a hasty tribunal, of thirty-eight Indians and sympathizers—an event that still holds the United States record for number of people executed simultaneously in one day. Though the massacre is central to the tale, Maltman wisely lets the horror of that day burble in the background, creating a slow, seething tension that builds for nearly 300 pages before he even mentions it.
In the meantime, the narrative shifts back and forth between 1876 and the late 1850s, telling the story of a German immigrant family that settles in a valley outside of New Ulm, across the river from a band of Dakota Indians. Through much delicate and beautiful writing, the saga of the Senger family unfolds and their relationship with the tribe of Indians on the other side of river grows more complicated. The children play with each other and occasionally fight; the adults have an uneasy but respectful friendship; and when push comes to shove—when one or the other is sick or in need of assistance—they act like neighbors and help each other out in order to survive. But they are not the same. Both sides know it, and their differences eventually lead to bloodshed.
There is nothing didactic or cloying about The Night Birds; it is simply a first-rate tale of historical fiction that rings true with every word, amplifying one of the most horrific episodes in our history without exploiting or sensationalizing it. However, Warren Read takes a far more personal and confrontational approach to history in his memoir, The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History.
During a random Google search, Warren Read discovered an awful truth: That his great-grandfather, Louis Dondino, was the man responsible for inciting the riot that led to the infamous Duluth lynching in 1920 of three black circus workers accused of raping a white girl. Starting with the seed of this unsettling fact, Read does a brilliant job of showing how his grandfather’s shameful legacy (the men were later proven innocent) was not an isolated event, but rather part of a pattern of violence and bigotry that extended through the generations to his own abusive, alcoholic father all the way to the present and the hatred Read himself has felt as a once-married man with three kids who is now openly gay.
Read doesn’t just tell his story, though—he attempts to make amends for his family’s ignorance and brutality and in the process fashions a kind of heroic template for how a thoughtful, conscientious person can take active responsibility for their own life, however uncomfortable or inconvenient the facts of one’s life may be. Read can occasionally be faulted for polishing his own halo a little too brightly, but for the most part he presents the facts of his personal life and the back story of the Duluth lynching with unflinching honesty and a great deal of effective, poignant writing on a subject that Minnesotans, try as they might, can’t seem to forget.
The Night Birds, by Thomas Maltman, Soho Press, 2007. 370 pages, $24 The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History, by Warren Read, Borealis Books. 208 pages, $24.95

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