“Let them eat grass,” said Andrew Myrick, a trader who owned several stores on the Dakota reservations in Minnesota. He was referring to the hungry warriors desperate for the food promised them by the federal government.* It was the summer of 1862, the second year of the Civil War. The Dakota were starving, their children dying. The winter had been harsh, the corn crop devastated, game was scarce, and the Dakota hadn’t yet received their annual annuity payment from Washington. And until they did, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent on the reservation, Thomas Galbraith, wouldn’t open the warehouses, even though they were well stocked with corn and pork.
In early August, after a group of angry warriors raided one of those warehouses and grabbed twenty sacks of flour, Galbraith asked Myrick if he’d extend credit to the Dakota for food. That’s when Myrick shrugged and said, “Let them eat grass,” adding, for good measure, “or their own dung.” Two weeks later, on August 18, Myrick was dead, his head severed and his mouth stuffed with grass.
Susanna Moore quotes Myrick in her searing new novel, The Lost Wife, renaming him Hilly Gamp, an unsavory fellow with a wig made of badger pelts, just one of the callous and careless people responsible for the six-week Dakota War of 1862. That war resulted in the deaths of at least 150 but probably more Dakota and about 400 to 800 white settlers. The Union Army suffered casualties too, perhaps 100. It’s hard to know. The Dakota War also inspired Sarah Wakefield’s Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees (1863), an account of her abduction by Mdewakanton warriors, one of whom, known as Chaska, saved her life.
Wakefield’s story, the source for Moore’s novel, is pretty unusual. For one thing, Wakefield was categorical about what caused the war. “Our own people, not the Indians were to blame,” she declared. “Had they not, for years, been suffering? Had they not been cheated unmercifully?” She also dared question the smug justice meted out by the whites after the war when she testified in support of Chaska, who had been wrongly accused of murder. “They considered my testimony of no account,” she said. “They thought it very strange I could speak in favor of an Indian.”
Despite her testimony—and perhaps because of it—Chaska was executed. He was one of the 264 Dakota men whose peremptory sentences President Abraham Lincoln had commuted. Presumably he was mistaken for someone else, for on the day after Christmas 1862, Chaska and thirty-seven others were hanged in the largest mass execution in American history.
Wakefield’s narrative is a perfect fit for Moore. The author of seven novels and four works of nonfiction, she typically writes of the past with quiet insight through the eyes of women who are often liminal figures, though not, of course, to themselves. In her coming-of-age stories, these women frequently move from a form of innocence to some collision with history.
In her debut novel, My Old Sweetheart (1982), Moore hauntingly conjured a Hawai‘i of banyan trees and jasmine, of legendary spirits that chant through the night—and of hierarchical privilege and casual or calculated racism. Brought up in this world, often baffled by it, the narrator, as an adult, travels to the Cambodian jungle in search of her father while B-52s drop bombs from above and Khmer Rouge guerrillas kill civilians. She observes with regret that “one could probably grow accustomed to viewing the world from a great distance.” In Moore’s novel The Life of Objects (2012), a young Irish Protestant woman finds employment in the home of a wealthy Berlin couple in 1938, and despite the horrors we can easily infer or the moral compromises we witness, she finds her life oddly enlarged by history, almost as if she were a character out of Henry James, living all she can.
So too Moore’s nonfiction reconstructs worlds out of joint, paradoxical, refractory, and brutal, in which young women are raped or beaten or, in order to survive, pretend to be someone they’re not. Moore’s Irish Catholic mother, the daughter of a housemaid and chauffeur, remade herself into a debutante. Whimsical, charming, beautiful, and needy, she was dead at thirty-five. Moore was motherless at twelve, and at seventeen left Hawai‘i, where she had been raised, arriving at her grandmother’s in Philadelphia without so much as a suitcase. In her memoir, Miss Aluminum (2020), Moore, beautiful and confused, is raped by the designer Oleg Cassini and beaten by her husband before finding herself a script reader in an insouciant, empty Hollywood. “A girl is deceived into thinking that because she can literally hold her head above water, she will stay afloat,” she knowingly writes in the autobiographical novel Sleeping Beauties (1993).
In The Lost Wife, the woman who tries to hold her head above water is Sarah Butts Brinton, Moore’s version of Sarah Wakefield. Since little is known of Wakefield’s early years or the circumstances that took her from Rhode Island, where she was born, to Minnesota, Moore endows Sarah with a painful past. Like Wakefield, she is from Rhode Island, though in her case she had been an inmate of Dexter Asylum, a home for the indigent and mentally ill. She had been sent there after her mother, a prostitute, hurled an oil lamp at one of her customers. But they are thrown out of Dexter when an inmate informs the matron about her mother’s liaisons with a series of men and women in the empty basement storeroom. After Sarah finds a job at a Providence jeweler’s, her mother is soon sleeping with the jeweler’s assistant, Ank Butts (the name alone is amusing), and “when she tired of him,” Sarah recalls in her flat voice, “she sent him upstairs to me.”
Sarah marries the abusive Butts but manages to run away, having invented a sister she must visit in Boston. Instead she goes to Shakopee, in Minnesota Territory, where she’d heard from a friend there was plenty of work. And she figures that in the West she can escape her past: “I decided that I would be Sarah Brown. Or rather Browne. The ‘e’ giving it distinction.”
Moore’s narration is detached, spare, often eloquent in its terseness, and almost without affect. Sarah recounts the long journey to Shakopee: arriving in Albany from Boston, she boards a line boat drawn by mules on the Erie Canal, and when one of the boatmen shouts “bridge,” she has to lie flat on the deck so as not to be knocked into the water. From Buffalo she takes a lake steamer to Chicago and then rides a wagon laden with cages of chickens, oaken casks, an album of pressed flowers, and “a waffle iron tied to a child’s coffin.” She is tough and determined.
Moore also makes her clear-eyed, vigilant, sensually alive. “I can smell the smoke of burning basswood as it drifts across the river from the camp, and the damp must of the cows in the dairy, and the stink of urine-soaked straw,” she comments. As in all Moore’s writing, the details are tartly precise. So are her striking observations, offered without sentimentality or fanfare. “There is more sky than I can understand,” Sarah says of the West. “I keep moving so that it does not weigh on me.”
In Shakopee, while working for a jeweler who’s also the local dentist, Sarah notices John Brinton, a fastidious if taciturn man who wears blue socks with polka dots. “There is something inaccessible about him,” she notes. An opium-addicted physician intent on vaccinating the children of Shakopee for smallpox, he’s a cipher to Sarah and thus to the reader but is perhaps the novel’s most intriguing character. Based on John Wakefield, the real-life husband of Sarah Wakefield, Brinton is a graduate of Yale Medical School (true) from a New England family who practiced in California (also true). Moore’s Brinton also has one testicle, reads Frederick Douglass, lacks any religious conviction to speak of, drinks laudanum, and takes the side of the Dakota in most things (true about the laudanum). “We have been killing them since the beginning,” he tells Sarah. “A less tolerant people would have taken their revenge years ago.” But occasionally he loses his temper and on at least one occasion hits Sarah when she dances “too feverishly with a half-Indian trapper.” But, she says without judgment, “even when he strikes me, it signifies nothing, not even boredom.” They marry and have two children.
Brinton is appointed resident doctor at the Upper Sioux Agency, where missionaries, government employees, storekeepers, and fur traders all live. The Brintons furnish their house with mahogany sideboards, two Japanese vases decorated with cranes, and three stuffed Baltimore orioles under a glass bell. Sarah changes her petticoat once a week and hires Dakota women who teach her how to make pemmican and to burn juniper to mask the smell of Gamp’s pig farm. They polish her mahogany sideboards, and in return she gives them beef and eggs and often invites the Santee chiefs for a dinner of corn fritters and cherry cobbler. They call her Tanka-Winohinca-Waste—large good woman. “I live in two worlds now,” she says.
Yet she senses something amiss. The traders routinely swindle the Dakota, presenting them “with blank vouchers or receipts scribbled with random numbers, sometimes even pages of newsprint, meant to show how much they have spent at the trading posts,” Moore writes. “The white men use the money meant for the Dakota for their own wages, as well as their building and farming projects.” Simmering and exasperated and hungry, on August 18, 1862, a party of Mdewakanton warriors, led by the chief Little Crow, attack the Lower Sioux Agency (true again). Hearing rumors of the violence, John Brinton arranges for his family to go to Fort Ridgely for their safety. But they’re driving straight into the uprising. Two armed Mdewakanton accost Sarah and her driver, Manse Hawkins, and Hepan, one of the warriors, shoots Hawkins. Recognizing Sarah as the doctor’s wife, the other warrior, Chaska, convinces Hepan to spare her and her two small children, and they are taken as captives.
Another vicious installment in the tale of America’s westward course of empire, the Dakota War is the occasion for Sarah’s deepening awareness of the injustice, arrogance, and deceit of the whites toward the Dakota. But here Moore’s Sarah Brinton begins to part company with the real Sarah Wakefield. While both women start to wonder in which world they belong—or who they are—Wakefield cannot shuck her racism. She writes of “filthy, nasty, greasy Indians,” “savage fiends,” and “wild beasts” ready to kill her. In captivity she finds it humiliating to wear “squaw dress.” And though she admits she “began to love and respect” the Dakota, she refers to them as “poor deceived creatures.”
Highly ambivalent, doubtless confused and distressed and terrified, Wakefield also asserts that, as hostages, “we were comfortably fed and lodged when we might be left on the plains to starve.” Bitterly she asks, “Where could you find white people that would do like that?” A jumble, then, of self-vindication, maternal devotion, condescension, Christian piety, and guilt, Wakefield’s narrative is a believable hodgepodge of religion and racism, of rationalization and of pure rage at the way the Dakota are treated—and the way she is disrespected by white men and women. But Moore peels away Wakefield’s need for vindication, her real or feigned gestures toward piety, her consistent if conflicted insistence that she and Chaska were not lovers, and her constant sense of dread. Sarah Brinton is not conflicted.
Initially Brinton did crave the friendship “of another human creature,” Moore writes. “That is, a white person.” At the same time she is suspicious of those routinely condescending white people. She had been nothing more than an Irish peasant, the target of snobbery and contempt, to the New England gentry. As Brinton notes with derision, “Civilization means language, and habits of cleanliness, and religious practices, and more particular things like one’s fingernails and how one smells.” In fact, her husband, a man seemingly without prejudice, nonetheless defines civilization as “a Western self-consciousness that holds itself superior.” That sense of superiority galls her.
Moore’s Sarah Brinton is thus more class-conscious, more contemporary, more didactic, and more primed for a volte-face than Sarah Wakefield could ever be. In Moore’s novel, Talutah, Chaska’s mother, soon becomes the good, loving, protective mother Sarah never had. She pats down Sarah’s hair with bear fat and braids it. She dresses Sarah and her young son in leggings and moccasins and feeds them bacon and corn bread and broth. She makes a drink from boiled walnut kernels, water, and cornmeal for Sarah’s baby. Sarah learns how to chew buffalo meat until it’s soft enough to give to the children, and how to skin a porcupine—“how to become a Dakota woman,” she comments with a certain pride.
Moore’s Sarah Brinton is also overtly and unapologetically sexual. When Hepan threatens to rape and kill her, Chaska stops him, saying he wants to marry her. Privately, he tells Sarah that the marriage is a ruse merely meant to protect her; he won’t touch her. But she wants something more. When she strokes him, true to his word, he rebuffs her. “This is what desire feels like,” Sarah thinks. “This is what shame feels like.” Later Sarah confesses to Chaska that she has two husbands and, back in Rhode Island, a daughter, Florence, “ten years old now…. She was lame in one foot when she was born, but that is not why I ran away.” He says nothing but this time, when Sarah reaches for his hand, he allows her to touch him.
Described with a certain elliptical grace, their relationship, whatever it is, condemns them both, albeit in different ways. On September 26, the Dakota surrender to the army and hand over their hostages, who are held in a place dubbed Camp Release (true). Sarah and her children are placed in a tent without bedding or food. It is cold at night, and the children get sick. The implication is clear; her captors had exercised much more compassion than these whites do, and with far less hypocrisy. Though the man in charge of the military, General Henry Sibley, promises not to harm any Dakota who didn’t fight, the Dakota are rightly skeptical. Sarah swears to Chaska she will protect him.
At the hastily convened court of inquiry, the other women captives pander to the expectation of the soldiers, telling tales of abuse and rape. When Sarah explains how Chaska protected her, the men of the jerry-rigged court refuse to believe her. “I have lied my whole life,” Sarah notes with regret, but “for once I was telling the truth.” She’s hopelessly at odds with a world that ignores the truth, and with Moore’s acuity she predicts that “this uprising will always be thought more horrific than anything the whites have done to them.” Accused of killing Manse Hawkins, Chaska is sentenced to death. Talutah refuses to speak to Sarah.
Sarah is now lost to the Dakota, who think she’s betrayed them, and lost to the whites, who spurn her, assuming she was “an Indian’s whore.” She is adrift. “How could I think he would be spared?” she asks. She is also lost to John Brinton, who survived the war. Sarah assumes that he is too civilized to shun her completely, and she is right, although he does note with aspersion that “other white women were not as obliging.” But he too is lost. “He has lost faith—in the Dakota, the whites, himself,” Sarah observes, adding that he lacks imagination and thus empathy. That’s not quite right. Shrewdly he tells her that Chaska saved her because “he wanted to keep you.” Willful ignorance, which is what it was, helps no one.
In the last pages of the novel, events occur rapidly: Talutah is said to have died of measles, Lincoln commutes the death sentences of more than two hundred Dakota, and Chaska is hanged. John Brinton, having evidently regained his faith, hopes to be accepted as a surgeon in the Union Army. Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Union general John Pope, who suffered defeat at Manassas, announces his determination “to exterminate the Sioux.”
Overshadowed by the Civil War, the Dakota War is the lesser-known chronicle of dispossession and racial exclusion that augured the forced exile of the Dakota from their ancestral lands and the war against the Native Americans, which would be waged for the next thirty years. In fact, there was a tragic inevitability about it, in retrospect but also probably at the time, which may be why Little Crow agreed to fight only with reluctance. Moore has Chaska understand this. “I wanted to tell him that they cannot win,” Sarah reflects, “but he knows that.”
As Sarah Brinton now explains to no one in particular, except perhaps the reader:
For the Sioux, victory was never the point. It was their burning, unquenchable rage and the honor that revenge would bring them, their wrathful understanding that they would soon be driven from the prairie that compelled them to kill.
She decides to return to Rhode Island: “I once thought that the past was lost, if not obliterated, by those of us streaming west across the land, but it is not so.” She takes her children to reunite with the child she had abandoned, able now to confront her own past. History has theoretically enlarged her.
That’s the only misstep in this beautifully crafted novel. Florence has mostly been forgotten, both by Sarah, no matter what she says, and by the reader. She is no more than a symbol, meant to supply the denouement to a story that has no real conclusion. For Moore is a strong and inventive writer acutely aware of what the Dakota War tragically foretold. “This myth of innocence and abundance is a kind of delirium,” John Brinton trenchantly observes at the novel’s close. It’s a dangerous delirium at that, less for Sarah Brinton, who survives, than for those people who inhabited not a mythical place at some great distance but a very real one historically close at hand.
The Dakota people, also referred to as the Eastern Dakota or Santee, were part of a larger nation that included the Nakota and Lakota. The name “Sioux” had originally come from the Ojibwe people, enemies of the Dakota, through the French fur traders, who called the Dakota “Sioux,” which meant “enemy” or “snake.” After 1858 the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota further removed the Dakota to a ten-mile-wide stretch on either side of the Minnesota River in exchange for annuities of about $250,000 per year—and “ample opportunities for graft among the various bureaucrats who would implement the treaties.” See Gary C. Anderson, Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), p. 33. The Lower Sioux Agency, located on the Minnesota River southwest of St. Paul, served the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of the Dakota. The Upper Sioux Agency, located farther up the river, served the Wahpeton and Sisseton bands. See, for instance, Sarah Wakefield, Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees, edited by June Namias (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997); and Emily Rankin Wardrop, “All the Women…Were Violated in This Way: Rhetoric, Rape, and Memory in the Dakota War,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 2015. ↩