Novel set mainly in London and Nepal
Talking Location With author Samantha Specks – Minnesota
14th August 2021
#TalkingLocationWith… Samantha Specks, author of Dovetails in Tall Grass – Minnesota
My favorite memory of a feeling is summer at sixteen. Driving two lane country roads, I was free and untroubled, a fresh driving license tucked in my jean shorts’ pocket. Rows of corn stalks blurred beyond my open window. Fields brimmed with life and happiness, soaking up the sun as much as I was. My childhood home was just west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the city’s suburbs dissolved into the farmlands of the Midwest. My parents were high school sweethearts; my mother was from a one stop-sign town, where my grandparents still lived on a street named after our family. The same area Laura Ingalls called home in the 1800s, living with her Ma and Pa in a sod-house on the banks of Plum Creek. And I was loving the early 2000s; a flip phone in the cup holder, I’d turn up the music while I cruised the endless potential of gentle hills of the highway lined with friendly waving grasses. Better than a country song – the prairie was all I knew. It was beautiful and it was mine.
But summer changed to winter; carefree existed for a moment in the sunshine of a teenage memory. Eventually, those same roads led me somewhere new.
In fact, it was that very winter, Christmas Eve on a silver snow covered road that the first seeds of the Dovetails story were planted in my heart. I was a high schooler—cozy, riding in my parents’ Suburban, making the final turn to my grandparents’ home, when my blue eyes spotted something new. Headlights illuminated unusual shapes moving across the darkening horizon. A group of men on horseback. Curious, I asked my parents why people were riding in the cold. My mother explained: “They’re Dakota who are marching to show they haven’t forgotten what happened here long ago.”
I felt compelled to learn what they hadn’t forgotten. And quickly I found out that the riders I crossed paths were the Dakota 38+2 Riders – a group that still rides every December from Lower Brule South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota (330 miles) – riding to commemorate the war that resulted in the largest mass execution in United States history. I loved my history classes, but I didn’t remember learning about this time in my state’s history. From that Christmas on, I picked up any book I could about the US-Dakota War. I knew before my family arrived, the Ingalls and other settlers called Minnesota home. But before them? I hadn’t thought much about any others who’d been here. So, I educated myself. I learned about the Dakota-Sioux people, about proud warriors, and hunters. Years passed and my interest never waned. During graduate school (Master of Clinical Social Work, University of St. Thomas) I dug into the scholarly articles. I learned about the violence of westward expansion that happened here that ended many lives and changed so many others. The war that sparked the next three decades of warfare, massacre, and genocide of the Indigenous people of the plains.
Reading scholarly articles couldn’t take the place of walking the bluffs along the river, touching the stone of old buildings that would have echoed the gunshots of battle, or standing on the ground where 38 men lost their lives at once. Each summer, my grandmother, mother, and I visited the historical markers scattered through the countryside. These markers were almost unnoticeable along a random gravel road next to a soybean field. The three of us would stand around quiet stone statues with dandelions sprouting around the bottom. Most of the monuments featured the names of the settlers – over 600 men, women, and children — killed. Until the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the US-Dakota War was the largest civilian casualty event in U.S. history. Other markers listed the 38 names of Dakota men hanged after revenge-fueled and unjust military trials. These peaceful rolls of prairie and sleepy country towns held so much history that mattered then and now.
It was only once I got married and moved 1500 miles away that I finally wrote a book inspired by my home state and by this history. And while writing, my husband and I welcomed our first child, which gave me a new vantage point on life – on the past, present, and the future.
It’s been many years of learning and many miles of life. Now, it’s 2021, and my first novel is set to come out later this summer. Thanks to a vaccine, I can come back to visit my home state. A few nights ago, with my baby buckled in her car seat in the back, I set out on that same drive I used to take as a teenager. Housing developments now dotted the first stretch of highway; it took a bit longer to get to the openness where I used to turn up the music. But I kept on toward the sunset. Turning the steering wheel, my hands remembered the easy curves from decades ago. Soon enough deep green fields of knee-high cornstalks blurred by once again. Instead of turning up the radio, I rolled down a window and let the cool clean air of a summer night wash over me. I was back. When I turned down a gravel road, even the farms disappeared, and the prairie opened up like a memory. The sunset lit up the wildflowers and the tall grasses swayed; a reminder of how the world looked to everyone who’s called this land home. The US-Dakota War played out in flashes in my mind. I sucked in a breath and sadness twisted a hand in my heart as I thought of the hundreds of lives lost and the execution of 38+2 men that would forever be a scar on Minnesota history.
Darkness of evening settled in. Headlights illuminated ghostlike swirls of dusty gravel. I adjusted the rearview mirror; my daughter was still sleeping, peacefully unaware. I rolled up my window, the quiet let me listen to my feelings. This wasn’t research, this wasn’t a fictional story. I pulled my car to the side of the road and switched off the headlights. Something in me wasn’t ready to leave. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. Fireflies flickered with magic, dancing between the grasses. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding and took the night in.
The rising moon glowed. In a light from far away, despite everything, it was still so beautiful. It was still home.
But the years and the darkness had taught me: this prairie was me — but wasn’t mine.
For readers of Dovetails in Tall Grass who visit Minnesota, here are a few recommendations to make the most of your time in this special state.
- New Ulm, Minnesota, is where some of the biggest battles of the US-Dakota War occurred. Today, it’s a great place for both history buffs and tourists to visit. A nice starting point is the Brown County museum. Your experience will be even richer if you visit in mid-August; the museum hosts a week’s worth of events, tours, and speakers to commemorate the war. Drive out toward the river bluffs, Fort Ridgely and the Lower Sioux Agency (the site of the very first battle). There are many historical markers and miles of trails for hiking. While in New Ulm, visit Schell’s Brewery. It’s the second oldest brewery in the United States (Oktoberfest is my favorite). And be sure to stop by Veigel’s Kaiserhoff and enjoy the schnitzel and sauerkraut.
- After learning about the war, you may recognize the origins for the names of these western suburbs of Minneapolis: Chaska and Shakopee. In Shakopee: stop by the Hoċokata Ti – the public exhibit of the Cultural Center at the Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Another interesting place to visit is Paisley Park (Prince’s studio) just up the road in the Chaska/Chanhassen area.
- A final important place in the US-Dakota War history is Fort Snelling, just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This historic military fort, located on the sacred Bdote land of the Dakota, held prisoners/refugees in after the war; tours will illuminate the history. If you go into Minneapolis, eat dinner at Owamni, an indigenous foods restaurant by The Sioux Chef. After dinner, walk the famous Stone Arch Bridge and take in the Minneapolis skyline.
About the Author:
Samantha Specks is a licensed independent clinical social worker. Dovetails in Tall Grass is Samantha’s debut novel. Currently, she is writing Dovetails of a River, which is set at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. She and her husband live in Houston with their baby (Pippa) and fur baby (Charlie). When not in Texas, they enjoy spending time on the lakes of Minnesota and in the mountains of the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado. For more information, please visit her website
Photos © Samantha Specks Russell Heeter Photography
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