BWW Reviews: 38 NOOSES Finds the Mark
38 Nooses, History
The last generation has seen something of a boom in historical narratives that focus on small events with potentially large implications (the latter often inflated in the inevitable subtitle, which in this case is Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End).
Encountering any one of these endeavors, questions arise. Is the tale worth telling? Is the author engaging this story only because few, if any, others have? Will it stray from history into eccentricity? Will angels be made to dance on the heads of pins?
In 38 Nooses, Scott W. Berg provides satisfying answers all around and does so with an uncommonly swift and sure narrative style that comes as a breath of fresh air to those who are already inclined to interest in the subject and provides a chance for those who aren't to dive in without fear of getting lost or nodding off.
The story recounts the Dakota War that took place between the late summer of 1862 and the spring of 1863 and ranges from the Minnesota frontier, just then experiencing the boom in settlement that would drive all but a small remnant of the Native American population (mostly various tribes of the Sioux nation in this case) further west, to Lincoln's Civil War White House, where the administration's principal energies were understandably committed to waging war and shaping the Emancipation Proclamation.
That's a big, potentially awkward, mouthful for a small book to swallow. Berg makes it look easy and natural.
By having the big names--Lincoln himself, his private secretary John Nicolay, Union General John Pope--present and well accounted for but on the sidelines, and focusing more on those generally known only to enthusiasts of the subject, if at all--the Dakota Sioux leader Little Crow, the earnest Episcopalian missionary Henry Whipple, the white captive Sarah Wakefield and her protector, a Dakota warrior named Chaska--the book is able to weave some fine narrative magic. I won't give away which fates befall which characters, but they range from the terrible tragedy of an unjust hanging to rifle shots fired from ambush to melancholic survival to a dogged, lifelong pursuit of humane reform. Each hits home.
Of course, an underlying theme of nearly all "western" literature that deals with White Settler/Native American conflict is whether or not the worst consequences were avoidable. It's to Berg's credit that he avoids the common traps and neither beats a drum nor buries the question so deeply it can be ignored:
"For the whites of Minnesota, the killings in the settlements constituted a series of out-and-out massacres. For Little Crow and especially for the members of the wartime tiyotipi, the perspective was different. For centuries the Dakota had fought the Ojibwe in blood conflicts and in disputes over hunting grounds, and for centuries they had seen their adversaries as unyielding. In a battle against the Ojibwe, no one was assumed to be a noncombatant; men, women and children were expected to fight to the end, and subterfuge or surprise was often necessary to gain the upper hand. Indeed, it seems that some of the Dakota attackers viewed the passivity of their white victims as a contemptible cultural weakness, one that increased rather than lessened their anger....Rifles and arrows, of course, made for cleaner kills; the wounds left by war clubs and tomahawks were far more ghastly and the bodies sometimes unrecognizable, a result the Dakota warriors understood as evidence of courage and personal risk even as whites saw only an expression of barbarism and savagery."