Paperback (also available as eBook), 978-1-68463-093-6, 238 pgs.
August 24, 2021
Houston writer Samantha Specks’s smoothly written debut novel is engaging, eye-opening historical fiction, set against a dark, real-life backdrop: America’s largest mass execution. On the day after Christmas, 1862 thirty-eight Dakota-Sioux Indians were hanged for attacking New Ulm, a small Minnesota town.
Dovetails in Tall Grass focuses on two young women, Emma and Oenikika, and their separate yet related love stories that share unusual connections to Tashunke, a strong, protective Dakota-Sioux warrior with special talents for handling horses.
Emma lives with her family, the Heards, on a farm near New Ulm. She is sixteen when the story begins and is often irritated that her parents still make decisions for her. Her father, August Heard, is New Ulm’s only lawyer. Oenikika, meanwhile, also lives near New Ulm on the Dakota-Sioux reservation. Her father, Chief Little Crow, makes the decisions for his daughter, as well. He is the chief of the reservation, which keeps losing hunting ground as white settlers move in and claim more land inside its boundaries.
The author uses an effective back-and-forth structure to develop her characters and build tension throughout the novel. Oenikika and Emma recount their experiences, emotions, and fears in separate chapters as life continually becomes more complex for them both. Initially, the two characters sound nearly identical in voice and tone. They become more differentiated as details about their widely different lives emerge.
Both Emma and Oenikika are eager to find a man who will be a good husband. Yet customs and social limits must be carefully observed in the settlers’ world as well as on the reservation. Love does not come as quickly as either young woman has wished. Oenikika, however, soon marries Tashunke. He moves her into his tipi and tells her: “I am glad to have you here. What was mine alone is now ours.” Emma continues being disappointed at her potential suitors. She secretly plans to become a teacher so she can leave New Ulm. “If I looked out the window at home,” she tells herself, “all I’d see were straight rows of blonde tasseled corn and two hogs staring blank-eyed back at me.” Fortunately, a spark finally happens after she meets Stephen Riggs, a missionary who acts as a translator for the Dakota Sioux.
Later in the book, Oenikika’s reservation experiences starvation. Game has dwindled inside the shrunken boundaries, and the U. S. government’s guaranteed annuity payment to the reservation is long overdue as the Civil War expands in the South. In desperation, some of the reservation’s warriors put on war paint and attack New Ulm’s food storehouse and other locations.
During the melee, Emma’s sister, Ida, is nearly raped by two Indians, but a third warrior knocks them both away and signals Emma to help Ida and flee. On the reservation, Oenikika uses her nascent medicine woman skills to help treat her tribe’s wounded. Federal troops soon arrive and round up more than 300 Dakota Sioux, including Tashunke. A disgraced Union general who recently had lost a significant battle in the South is sent to ensure the Indians are punished. He intends to rebuild his reputation by having most of them die after quick trials.
Samantha Specks skillfully enhances her complex tale with well-described settings, good research, and a balance of characters based on real and fictional people. Both main characters find themselves pulled into horrific situations beyond their youthful understanding. And each must find their separate courage and learn also to trust in the choices and bravery of others once destructive forces gain the upper hand.
Samantha Specks is a clinical social worker who has worked on a child/adolescent psychiatric unit, as a Dialectical Behavioral group therapist with adults and adolescents, and as an outpatient psychotherapist. She currently lives in Texas, but her heart and mind resided in Minnesota, her home state, while working on Dovetails in Tall Grass, which is her debut novel. Her happy place is reading a good book or watching a terrible TV show with a cup of tea and her leggings covered in dog hair. Sticking with the theme of strong young women, Samantha and her husband welcomed a baby girl to their family while she was writing this novel.