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Night Birds Paperback – May 1, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In 1862, led by Chief Little Crow and incited by the government's failure to provide their annuity, the Dakota Sioux staged an uprising in Minnesota, slaughtering hundreds of settlers. As a result, 38 Dakota men were hanged, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Maltman's promising first novel bounces between the years leading up to this atrocity-laden conflict and 1876, when the James-Younger gang would stir up its own brand of bloody mayhem in Minnesota. Following the struggles of the Senger family, Maltman keeps the telling personal and local, tacked to the Senger's farm and the Dakota tribe situated a stone's throw across the river. His account of the lives, toils, and customs of the wary neighbors is nearly innate, and the tenuous relationship formed and then warped between the two is as fascinating as it is tragic. Heavy with dark symbolism, though never ponderous, and dense but never unreadable, Maltman's earnest prose sometimes tends toward melodrama but is ultimately tempered by his flawless sense of history marked by its most revealing--and harrowing--details. Ian Chipman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press (May 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1569475024
  • ISBN-13: 978-1569475027
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #238,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a well researched, and excellently written work that blends historical realities with the traditions of Ozark healers and native tribes of Minnesota. "The Night Birds" is full of passion and surprise, and the image evoked by the title gathers more meaning as the story progresses. The narrative follows several generations of European immigrants as they struggle to survive side by side with a band of Dakotas in the mid 1800's. Maltman blends historical reality with practical and spiritual reflection. This book leads the reader to reflect upon many of the issues we continue to address and struggle with today. Once you begin, you will not want to put this book down. When you finish, you will want to read it again.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Multi-generational story of a German family torn apart by the violence of the 1800's: slavery, Indian wars, and Mother nature that can be equally as brutal. Told in two time frames, the 1850's and the 1870's with each story tightly intertwined. Leaving Missouri after the father prints an anti-slavery article, the father and children and stepchildren head for the Minnesota frontier. The Dakota Indians are not unfriendly neighbors but fear, distrust, and misunderstandings plague everyday life until the Great Sioux War of 1962 tears everything apart.

The story centers on Hazel, a young girl, whose father has taught her of the "old ways" of healing and her effect on the family. Friendly with the Indians, Hazel is later captured and becomes the wife of a young Indian brave. After the Great War, Hazel becomes reunited with part of her extended family. The story is told from the viewpoint of Asa,a young man whose life is affected by Hazel's years later. rt4

The writing in this novel is beautiful although brutal in the description of daily life on the unplowed frontier. Nature is not merely a background but an active force throughout the story. The characters of children, young mothers, soldiers, old Dakota Indians, and farmers are so clearly drawn. Life was unbelievably hard and cruel, but the human spirit although at times broken and equally as cruel can maintain a spark of belief and hope in something better. A remarkable novel of the frontier.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The Night Birds" is told by Asa, a young boy born in Minnesota in 1862. A boy of unusual sensitivity to the plight of others, Asa once released prisoners from jail out of pity for their unhappiness. That act of kindness branded him as different in a harsh and unforgiving world.

"Night Birds" teeter-totters between the stories of German settlers and indigenous Dakota peoples in the Midwest -- and the plagues brought by white men along with the devastation of natural hunting and fishing grounds as well as the bloody struggles between abolitist vs. pro-slavery sentiments held by differing whites. Confrontation between the groups is violent and often deadly.

Maltown's long suite in this novel lies in his descriptions of the harshness of the unconquered land -- the hunting and trapping, the decimation of animals, the killing of thousands of crows, and of sky-darkening flights of passenger pigeons, a pack of wolves dismembering their prey, freezing rains,and people falling through river ice to face terrible deaths.

The story shifts back and forth in the telling between 1859 and 1876 sometimes distracts the drama provided by immediacy as it flashes back to provide historical substance, i.e., motivational attributes to the events leading up to the present (1876).

In these pages one experiences horror, e.g., we watch as a group of Indian children stone a settler boy, see them approach the stoning with some trepidation until the first blood is drawn, then leap in to the lust of killing, continuing to stone the settler boy long after his life is gone. We see that scenario repeated many times: pro-slavery forces against abolitionist, settlers against Indians, village and teepee, town and log cabin, burning, torturing, scalping, beheading.
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Format: Paperback
Terrific first novel. I won't summarize the plot, because that's done already. I cringed when I saw that this was a novel by a white guy writing about Indians, thinking it'd be another romanticization of them a la Dances With Wolves, but it was balanced, well-researched, and insightful about the historical clash of cultures. Some of the Indians are good guys, some are bad guys, ditto the white settlers and children. The novel is very much Hazel's story, and she's a compelling character. It's hard to believe that not only this is a first novel but, if we read the author's notes, a story that drove him to become a writer. Most writers needs years and years of writing junk first before they can write something this good--and this complex. While it's literary (and filled with rich sensory detail--beautiful stuff), it's also plotted--yay! Would that more literary writers knew how to plot.

I've read two of the past five Pulitzer fiction winners and found them dull and overrated and flawed, and then I read this and thought, "Night Birds is exactly what Pulitzer winners used to be like, good, compelling tales, with a rich American setting." I wish more mainstream fiction were like this.

If it has a weakness, it is relentlessly bleak, elegiac, but since there is good reason for that, I don't think it's a weakness--but I feel a need to warn readers. If you're expecting a cheerful Little House on the Prairie, this isn't that book. It's more honest.

I don't know the novelist, am not from his MFA program or any such thing, just a stranger who came across the book searching for novels written set in the 19th century. I applaud him.
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