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What’s all this fascination with our pioneer past? Two prairie narratives put things into perspective

Minnesotans appear to be nostalgic for a time none of us can remember.

Tickets for the Guthrie Theater’s production of “Little House on the Prairie: The Musical” have moved as quickly as a grassfire on the open plains, breaking all Guthrie box office records. A slew of statewide events celebrating Minnesota’s sesquicentennial are drawing history buffs out of hiding. And writers are looking to the state’s early settlement years for inspiration: Several recent books draw on Minnesota’s pioneer past.

Why then — and why now?

Perhaps we’re getting weary of our wireless Internet, air conditioning and internal combustion engines. But remember life with an outhouse — or worse, a well-placed bucket? No, and you don’t want to. Same goes for locusts for dinner, booze-based medicines and horse-powered transportation. A well-done prairie narrative, minus the Pa, Ma and schmaltz, puts it all in perspective.

Thomas Maltman‘s epic heavily researched and beautifully told novel “The Night Birds” reads like the Grimmest of folktales. Its unflinching accounts of brutal settler massacres and Indian hangings during the Dakota Uprising of 1862 are eye-opening, horrific and based on eyewitness accounts from both sides. (More than 500 settlers and Dakota Indians were killed over a six-week series of attacks.)

Maltman says memories of those times run surprisingly long in the state, and descendants of both white settlers and Native Americans warned him to tread carefully as he wrote about those dark days of state history. (Curtis Dahlin’s nonfiction book about these events, “Dakota Uprising Victims: Gravestone and Stories” also came out last year.)

Fiction based on family history
Laurel Means’ “The Long Journey Home” follows a Civil War veteran as he travels to western Minnesota to stake his claim on land granted to soldiers after the war. Means, a former research fellow at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct literature and writing teacher at several private colleges, wanted to write fiction based on family history.

The seed of inspiration was small: She learned about a great-grandfather who’d received a Todd County land grant in 1868 and married a young French-Canadian girl. But that was enough to get her imagination going. “Although family history is an already created world — data, birth dates, etc., it’s also abstract. You’ve got to fill in the gaps,” says Means. “A lot of the fill-ins came from reading contemporary newspaper gossip columns, diaries, letters. A lot came from my own childhood experiences growing up on a farm: milking cows, churning butter, canning beans — the lot.”

Even if our ancestors were city dwellers, and left the hardships and heroics up to others, there’s still a desire to connect with a romantic past when we could have lived simpler lives, says Means — even though those days, upon closer examination, were neither simple nor romantic.

Her claimholder hero is a thoroughly unsympathetic Pa, and his bride’s situation is appalling — although somewhat improved over that of the real-life woman she is based upon. “I’ve given her a better role because my pain over her actual situation was too great,” says Means.

Maltman’s pioneer patriarch is easier to love, but his dedication to the ideals of settlement cost his family dearly. A photo in Dahlin’s book showing a gravestone marking an entire family of slain settlers calls them “martyrs for civilization.”

As we enjoy a locust-free summer day in Minnesota, our debt to those pioneers is clear. But were they all such martyrs? “Little House on the Prairie” makes hard times look like good times. Surely many settlers were thrilled by our fair state with its rich resources — and, according to a promotional booklet put out by the state called “Minnesota: It’s Advantages to Settlers, 1869” (freshly reprinted in 2006), the young state’s flush times, healthy climate and economic promise were unparalleled. In fact, it tells prospective pioneers, even the winters here are swell: “There is a popular opinion abroad that Minnesota is a delightful country to ‘summer in,’ but our winters are not so attractive. Now, of those who have tried summer and winter here, it is a question which season the majority prefer. … It is the season of the year, by general consent, given up to enjoyment and every one seems resolved to have his share.”

Everyone, that is, except those folks wintering in a sod home, teepee or shoddy cabin on the edge of nowhere. But that’s the stuff good stories are made of, right?


What: Laurel Means reads from “The Long Journey Home”
When: 2 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 3
Where: Common Good Books, 165 Western Ave., St. Paul
Phone: 651-225-8989
How much: Free

Means also reads:
When: 11:30 a.m., Wednesday, Aug. 6
Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
Phone: 612-822-4611
How much: Free

What: Footprints in History: Minnesota Historical Society’s Guided tour of the Lower Sioux Agency, site of the first Indian attack in the U.S.-Dakota war
When: Aug. 2-Sept. 28
Where: Lower Sioux Agency, 32469 Redwood County Hwy. 2, Morton, Minn.
Phone: 507-697-6321
How much: $6

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Gary Peterson on 07/31/2008 - 12:48 pm.


    You ask, probably rhetorically, “Why then — and why now?”

    People in all times and places have had a keen interest in the lives of those who came before. Thus, the strength of oral traditions before stories were documented in tangible form. Why now? Possibly because there are so many more of us alive to pursue our musings, and we have relatively more time and money to devote to the pursuit.

    My father’s first cousin was buried in southwest Kansas on Tuesday this week at age 102. This cousin’s mother, who was one of my grandfather’s older sisters, was born in Illinois before traveling with her parents by train to Dodge City to take up homesteading in Meade County KS in 1885. Many years later, this county was ground zero for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. People did not make these life changes and set out to endure challenges and hardships because anything was expected to be easy. They had a hope that life could be different and better. Instant gratification was an unknown concept.

    Every detail and nuance of their lives is information, caution, and inspiration for how we might take action, engage change, and assume risks in order to make life in our day different and better.

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