The Night Birds
Read the award-winning novel of the Dakota Conflict of 1862. Winner of the Alex Award, the Friends of American Writers Literary Award, and a Spur Award, The Night Birds was most recently selected by the American Library Association as an “Outstanding Book for the College Bound.” Please scan down for the official discussion questions for book groups.
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.
See what readers are saying about it on Goodreads by clicking this hyperlink: Customer 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.)
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Praise for The Night Birds:
“We all set our sights on the Great American Novel. . . . [Thomas Maltman] comes impressively close to laying his hands on the grail.”
—Madison Smartt Bell, The Boston Globe
Link to full review in The Boston Globe, “A Poetic Imagining from Both Sides of a Cultural Frontier”
“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.”
—Robin Vidimos,Denver Post
Link to full review in The Denver Post, “From a Flock of Sorrows, Solace Takes Wing”
“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.”
“Thomas Maltman’s debut novel, The Night Birds, soars and sings like a feathered angel.”
“[A] flawless sense of history marked by its most revealing—and harrowing—details.”
Book Groups: Reading Guide for The Night Birds
Soho Press Reading Group Guide
- The Night Birds centers around the Senger family, who live across the river from a small band of Dakota. Famous leaders such as Little Crow or Colonel Sibley are outside the frame. What does the novel gain by focusing on ordinary individuals rather than the names most often seen in history books?
- The novel alternates between two contrasting time periods, 1876 and 1862. Why did the author choose a dual narrative structure to tell this story? Do the alternating stories echo in any unexpected ways?
- “I was born in the shadow of the Great Sioux War,” Asa tell us in this first line of the story. In what ways do you find his voice compelling? When Hazel begins her story of the family’s journey from Missouri the writing switches to a third person perspective. What effect did this have on you as a reader?
- On page 23 Hazel tells a story of children gathered in a castle where the king has forbidden speech. Why does she tell the story in response to Cassie’s question? How does the theme of silence resonate throughout the novel?
- In a summer of war, Hazel survives by attempting to shed her German-American identity, seeking to become Dakota. Is she successful? How did you respond to her character and the choices she makes?
- The Rocky Mountain News compared Thomas Maltman to William Kittredge, saying he “shares the same respect for place as the crucible of character.” How does place impact the people in The Night Birds? Did the narrative transport you into the past?
- Discuss the title of the novel. What are the night birds? How does their presence become a motif for the story?
- “The mystic fatalism that suffuses The Night Birds comes from both sides of a cultural frontier” Madison Smartt Bell wrote in a Boston Globe review, “and it is often beautifully expressed.” Do you agree? How does German and Dakota folklore inform the characters’ lives? What are the spiritual dimensions of this story?
- The Dakota Conflict, once known as The Sioux Uprising, is considered a lost or forgotten episode in national history. How does the novel illuminate history without becoming “teachy?” Did Maltman achieve balance in his portrayal of German and Dakota relations?
- Did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not? What scenes or images will linger in your imagination after you put the book away?