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State legislator’s book a historical fiction thriller

October 15, 2007

Book Review

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Dean Urdahl’s new book, “Uprising,” should be read by all Americans, not just those from Meeker County or his State Legislative District 18B.

It is a historical fiction thriller that shows how war does not start because of one person or one incident. It is about the six-week Dakota War in the Minnesota River Valley in 1862.

History books usually list the massacre of an Acton family, west of Litchfield, as the official start of the conflict. Urdahl points out the war was brewing well before that, and involved multiple sources.

In addition, once the war started, people disagreed on what to do next. Some of the Dakota didn’t want war at all, some wanted to fight only soldiers, and some wanted to kill all white settlers, including women and children. Some Dakota wanted to attack forts, some wanted to attack cities, like New Ulm, and some wanted to attack individual farms, like the family in Acton.

The Minnesota government and white settlers were equally divided. The Dakota on the reservation were starving, and yet the bureaucrats couldn’t make up their minds whether to pay the Dakota for their land with gold or paper money, or release the food in the warehouse for them first.

Sometimes, the white people behaved incredibly stupid, and sometimes the Dakota did, too.

It is obvious that Urdahl, an American history teacher from New London-Spicer Middle School, did a lot of research in writing the book.

However, it’s not just the history that makes the book worth reading. Urdahl has a way with words.

For example, when the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, is asking the lead character, Nathan, to become a conspirator, rather than a spy, Nathan questions if there is really a difference between the two.

Davis tells him they are only words.

“Unfortunately, Mr. President, they hang people, not words,” Nathan said.

In another scene, Nathan has his store trashed and his girlfriend threatened by some villainous traders.

Nathan confronts the traders on a hot day, when the traders pretend they don’t know why Nathan is upset. One of them, looking at the smashed windows in Nathan’s store, says he is thinking of cooling off by opening his windows, too.

After a fight with the traders, Nathan rips the pistol from the trader’s hands and flings it through the window, shattering the glass. “There, Andrew, I opened your window for you,” Nathan said.

Other than the clever writing, the best part of the book is the plot, and why I consider it a thriller. The foreshadowing is superb.

One of the female settlers, Guri, was looking at her family and home and thinking, “Life was good here and she knew it could only get better. She was wrong,” Urdahl writes.

In another scene, after a Fourth of July get-together among several white settlers’ families, Urdahl writes that most of them would never see each other again, this side of heaven.

The book gets progressively scarier.

After the war begins, and the Dakota are attacking individual farms, two families, the Foot and Erickson families, are hiding out in a cabin. When the 20 Dakota warriors take positions around the cabin, the men order the light put out. At first the women and children refuse. But then they are convinced the Dakota will be able to see them if they leave the light burning.

As soon as the light goes out, the women and children start to bawl, not just whimper, but full out bawling, so loud the men can’t hear each other talk.

Later, one of the men thinks he can appease the Dakota by giving them potatoes. As soon as he gets out in the potato field, and is separated from the rest of the people hiding in the cabin, he is shot and killed. Then the Dakota fight in earnest to kill all the settlers, men, women and children.

This was the most terrifying part of the entire book for me. It was much more frightening than when the Dakota fought soldiers.

I could find only two flaws in the book. First, how the dialect was written for characters not from Meeker County or the Minnesota River Valley didn’t ring true to me.

The other flaw was the main character’s attitude to the Dakota. Nathan was supposed to have been from Virginia and a slave-owning family. If he believed people of color were merely property, he would have thought the Dakota weren’t human beings either. Nathan treated the Dakota respectfully throughout the story.

Otherwise, the book is thoroughly entertaining and informative. Everyone seemed to have a part in starting the war. The soldiers were unprepared, the government agents were idiots, the military in St. Paul responded slowly, the Dakota acted like bullies, and earlier Civil War battles affected events in the West. Even the hot, sticky weather is a character in “Uprising.”

Urdahl also included his ancestors in the book, some fictional, some real. Urdahl’s great, great-grandfather, for example, was the superintendent of the construction of the Forest City stockade.

All in all, it’s a great book. You will enjoy it.

‘Uprising’ is published in St. Cloud

“Uprising,” by Dean Urdahl is published by North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., PO Box 451, St. Cloud, MN 56302. Its web site is northstarpress.com