Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Night Birds | Review

Okay... ahem... full disclosure: I'm going to do my level BEST to get you to read this little, unknown piece of historical fiction. Be prepared.

It's crazy how this book first popped on my radar. It was either 2009 or 2010 and I was browsing the stacks at my local library. I picked up The Night Birds because I got a good feeling from it, like some sort of wacky, mystical book-sniffer. Two days later, I'd finished the novel and felt like I'd just stepped off an emotional tilt-a-whirl.

I've only ever read this book once. My library no longer has a copy (probably my fault; I took the book along with me on a kayaking trip aaaaand kind of dropped it in a river) and I have a hunch that it's out of print. Now that I think on it, I should really hunt down a copy and purchase it. All of this is to say, my memory of the book's particulars are unfortunately fuzzy.

What I remember most starkly, however, are the huge waves of emotion that I felt while reading The Night Birds. Huge, huge waves of feelings. Also, I remember being deeply impressed by the overall quality of the novel.

The book is set during the Civil War era in the rural midwest. Think Little House on the Prairie, but written for an older audience. Our narrator is a boy, Asa, and the story begins when his aunt Hazel comes to stay with his family on their farm. Hazel has been released from an asylum, and it becomes clear that she suffers from epilepsy and the memories of lost love and disappointments. She and Asa form a close bond. It's a relationship rarely seen in fiction — that of an aunt and her nephew, but it's a very beautiful rapport that the two share inThe Night Birds.

What happens next is intense and heartbreaking. It has to do with the Dakota indians and their last-ditch struggles to escape the stranglehold of the white men, which resulted in staggering violence and tragedy. I will not try to hide it from you; there is blood in The Night Birds. It's shocking, and hard to read, but what's important to remember is that the Dakota Conflict of 1862 is a real historical event, and it often gets overshadowed in the history books by the Civil War.

What Maltman does so well in The Night Birds, is he humanizes the people on either side of the conflict. We get to see the beauty of the Dokata lifestyle, how it is threatened, and their growing desperation that culminates in mass murder. We also understand the plight of the white pioneers, and their struggles. What Maltman doesn't provide us is relief from the reality of what happened. Because of this, The Night Birds is hard to read.

Huh. I'm not doing such a great job at selling this book, am I? Ah, well. Just trust me when I say that The Night Birds has transformative power. It's a beautiful piece of literature and an accomplishment of historical fiction. By God, read it.


  1. An important piece of literature. I'll take your word for it. :)

  2. Read it, Joy! I'd be excited and nervous to see your reaction.