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The Night Birds    by Thomas Maltman order for
Night Birds
by Thomas Maltman
Order:  USA  Can
Soho, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Writers and readers have been seeking the elusive great American novel for a long time (ever since American literature truly began with the era of Hawthorne and Melville), and there have been many contenders for the title. Now, from the imaginative genius of Thomas Maltman, comes another nominee in the form of The Night Birds, an award-winning evocation of life in the American Midwest in the 50s through the 70s of the nineteenth century.

When the action begins, fourteen year old Asa Senger of Kingdom Township in Minnesota finds his almost unbearably difficult life on the locust-infested prairie almost magically transformed when his Aunt Hazel, recently released from the asylum, comes to live with the Senger family. Through his remarkable aunt, a woman with a past and plenty of secrets, Asa gradually learns about his family's complicated and harrowing past in which violent racism clashed with abolitionist fervor, white pioneer expansionism collided with Native American anxieties and hostilities, and the dark myths and legends of the German family's immigrant background informed the family's difficult experiences in an inhospitable new world.

In assessing this novel, it needs to be said that Thomas Maltman's beautifully told story of people, places, and events is a remarkable national epic of the American experience in which intriguing characters - complex and compelling - simultaneously become the actual and symbolic representations for all that was good, bad, and ugly during American growth and discovery in the nineteenth century. Violent, disturbing, atrocity-filled, and bitter at times (like America itself), The Night Birds paradoxically soars at the same time on flawless lyrical wings into the sublime territory of personal (and national) dreams, relationships, passions, and redemption.

Reminiscent of my reading of the best from Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and E. L. Doctorow, my reading of Thomas Maltman's writing was an experience that was intellectually satisfying and emotionally gripping. Finally, with Native American legends and Grimm's fairy tales woven throughout the shimmering narrative, The Night Birds, notable also for some of the most powerful imagery to be found in any novel, is - for dozens of different reasons - American literature at its best. Don't miss it.

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