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Review: “Beneath the Same Stars” Seeks Medicine for Our War with the Dakota

Cover, Beneath the Same Stars, Phyllis Cole-Dai, 2018.
Cover, Beneath the Same Stars, Phyllis Cole-Dai, 2018.

Back in July, Brookings writer Phyllis Cole-Dai offered me an early copy of her new historical novel, Beneath the Same Stars, if I would just write a review. I read the book in August, but I underestimated my ability to fit serious literary review in with campaigning and my great new job. That job continues, but the campaign is out of the way, so let’s catch up.

I may be excused from writing a thorough review of this personalized, fact-based account of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, because professor emeritus Charles L. Woodard of South Dakota State University has written this succinct recommendation, which appears at the beginning of the e-copy I read:

This novel, whose title beautifully expresses the ongoing relevance of the so-called “past,” should be widely read and discussed in schools and communities. Through impressive research and powerful storytelling, Cole-Dai contextualizes one of this country’s most tragic histories exceptionally well. Beneath the Same Stars is a significant contribution to the literature of cross-cultural understanding [Charles L. Woodard, comment introducing Phyllis Cole-Dai, Beneath the Same Stars, Bruce, SD: One Sky Press, 2018].

The so-called past—we should all use that phrase.

Cole-Dai reaches into the “past” that surrounds us to novelize the real life of Sarah Wakefield. This white woman’s tale is quite real: Sarah Wakefield came with the white invaders who stole Minnesota from the Dakota people. Wakefield survived captivity with her two young children among the warring Dakota along the Minnesota River. President Lincoln ordered the execution by hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato in December, 1862, and those executed included Chaska—Časke, Cole-Dai writes it—the man who held Wakefield prisoner, a man President Lincoln did not intend to kill. Wakefield wrote her own account of her captivity and the protection Časke provided. This is our history, the cultural conflict on which we built our prosperity.

Yet Cole-Dai files her novel under Fiction (shades of The Rider, a movie every South Dakotan should see). Cole-Dai writes not to discern the exact facts of this historical event but to provide a story to treat what ails us inhabitants of the so-called “past”:

Stories can be good medicine for what ails us. That’s why we bother to tell them. They delve beneath jockeying facts and opinions to help us fathom one another and ourselves. They can nudge us toward the difficult reparation of wrongs, long recovery from woundedness and trauma, and the prevention of additional injury [Phyllis Cole-Dai, “To the Reader,” foreword to Beneath the Same Stars, 2018].

I thus set my history major aside, pull out my English teaching certificate, and evaluate Beneath the Same Stars as literature, not history. How well does this story serve its therapeutic purpose?

Sarah Wakefield is a big, powerful woman, taller than her husband and the other men in the Army company who move up the Minnesota River in 1861 to Agency Hill, the white outpost in Indian Country. She is strong enough to help free a buckboard from a muddy slough and laugh through the effort. her size and her willingeness to treat the Dakota people with respect and learn their language lead some of the neighboring Indians to call her “Good Big Woman.”

Yet Sarah lives in captivity in her own white culture: her cold, abusive husband John drags her and their two children away from civilization to the agency. John further cows her with the secret of her past, her escape from another abusive husband, an escape that would empower her in today’s culture but which only hangs the threat of shame over a woman of the 1860s. When soldiers leak an account of John’s beating of Sarah to the press, Sarah seizes no liberation; she denies the story and sticks up for her abuser, for the sake of her children and herself.

This theme of captivity is developed in an early cameo by Henry David Thoreau, who visits Agency Hill and challenges the white conception of the themselves and the Dakota:

“…There was a time, not so long ago, when every Indian might have taught us how to live again in our original relation to Nature. Simpler. Freer. More in sympathy with our surroundings, unburdened by acquisitiveness and depravity. If the Indian, generally, had remained who he was, with his instincts intact, we might one day have become—through his example, and our own intelligence and imagination—more indigenous than he himself. But today… most Indians might be inferior to us—precisely—because we’ve tamed them—and—clamped upon them—the chains of our institutions [Cole-Dai, p. 18].

A year of broken promises and starvation at the hands of the corrupt Army agents provokes some of the Dakota to wage war on the whites. John sends his wife and children away, a move he perhaps knew put them at greater risk than keeping them close with him. Indeed, Sarah’s wagon is captured by warring Dakota, her driver is shot, and she is saved only by Časke, an Indian whom she had helped her husband heal four years before during a Dakota-Chippewa conflict.

Sarah becomes one of many white women held prisoner by the Dakota. Časke gives her special protection, taking her into his family and disguising her and her children as Dakota with native clothing and red stain. For this protection, for the guarantee that the Dakota leaders will not kill her and her children, Sarah promises, “I will be a good Dakota wife to Časke! My children will belong to your people. We will live with your band the rest of our days!”

In the captivity that other white women deem “the Devil’s Hell,” Sarah thus finds some form of the liberation Thoreau hypothesized. She does her share of Časke’s family’s chores, busying her hands to support her captor while he navigates the challenges of war with the whites and division among his own people. And in a powerful metaphorical moment, she joins in with the tribal dance around the scalps of a slain white enemy, seeing the scalp not as “a hellish glorification of slaughter” but a sign of “honor… owed their enemies, around whose scalps they dance.” After that dance, Sarah embraces Časke and her identity as Časke’s wife.

And then the war ends. The Dakota return their white prisoners, hoping for mercy. Sarah defends Časke, saying he was a hero for saving her life, but the military officials pressure her to change her story, to “tell… what you have suffered.” Therein lies the personal irony, as important to this story has the broader cultural conflict: men pressure this one strong woman to lie about the one man in her life who brought her no suffering, who was her true, faithful, respectful husband.

“Freed” from “captivity” among the Dakotas, Sarah’s strength seems to fail her… her strength can find no purchase in her own culture. She testifies at Časke’s trial but cannot form words that will get her and Časke out from under the white tribunal’s manipulative words. “You’re not hearing me!” she cries, and ultimately recognizes the ugly truth of her own people’s system of justice: “This Court… has ears of stone.” Yet her failure to make her case to her own people isolates her from Časke, who, chained in his cell, says when she visits, “If Doctor Wife had told the truth, I would not be locked away in this place, away from My Mother, away from my people. Away from the sun.” Both Sarah and Časke have faith in the truth, and both are isolated from their people and from each other when truth fails to prevail.

Časke and 37 other Dakota hang—no spoiler alert needed, for we know from our so-called “past” that this story ends badly—and Sarah is left as isolated at the end as she was on page 1, which begins with her cry, “Here is where I’m to live? This is where you’ve brought me?” Yet her cell is not Indian Country, but the conquered land of the whites.

Beneath the Same Stars does not comfort. No cavalry rides to the rescue (the cavalry are among the bad guys). A good man dies. A good woman lives but cannot escape her captivity. But Cole-Dai didn’t say she was making tea or hot chocolate. She said her story is medicine, meant to deal with wounds and trauma that we have done and do to people with whom we “share” this land.

Oops—I guess my history major did sneak back in. Cole-Dai’s book stands on its own as good literature, but do not read it with the intent to escape history. Read it to understand and grapple with the history in which we Americans live.

Related Viewing: Phyllis Cole-Dai talks about why she approaches history through storytelling:

The author also offers this cinematic trailer for the book:


  1. Debbo 2018-11-18 21:45

    The book sounds powerful and wonderful. The terrible mass hanging at Mankato is recognized as an important part of Minnesota’s history. The annual observance is always well-reported and attended. Many of the Dakotah people were moved to the foot of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. It is not a proud part of the state’s history.

    Good review Cory.

  2. mike from iowa 2018-11-19 07:46

    Inkpaduta and his band of followers navigated iowa along my beloved Little Sioux River. History says his massacre of civilians at Spirit Lake was precursor of the Dakota war. So I must ask if Inkpaduta was mentioned in this new book.

    His travels up and down the river led him through my home town of Cherokee at least once. Just curious.

    Great review, Master.

  3. bearcreekbat 2018-11-19 11:21

    After reading Cory’s powerful review I immediately ordered this book on Amazon. Thanks Cory, I am looking forward to reading this story! It jumps ahead to next in line as soon as I finish my current read.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-19 20:54

    Bear! Glad to make the sale!

    Mike, some names are changed, so I can’t say for sure who might have been that great chief in the book. Any other readers see Inkpaduta?

  5. Phyllis Cole-Dai 2018-11-20 19:12

    Thanks so much for this review of my latest book, Cory. I’m very grateful. And I hope that everybody who orders the book as a result of your column gains much from the reading.

    To answer “Mike from Iowa,” Inkpaduta does not figure in this novel. That’s an important episode but beyond the scope of my subject.

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