Archived Story

Visiting novelist infuses stories with local roots [UPDATED]

Published 11:11am Monday, October 18, 2010 Updated 11:12am Monday, October 18, 2010

Candace Simar’s career as a novelist started with a shock to her system.

Simar, now 57 and living in Pequot Lakes, found out several years ago that her great-grandfather, Even Sonmor, was a stagecoach driver on an old trail between Fort Snelling in Minnesota and Fort Abercrombie in what was then known as Dakota territory (now North Dakota). Sonmor drove the stagecoach during the 1862 Sioux uprising in Minnesota, the Dakota territory and Iowa.

Excited by this new piece of family history, Simar, who grew up on a farm between Dalton and Underwood, told her three adult children the news.

“Instead of being excited about it, they had no idea what the Sioux uprising was,” she said, adding that she was appalled that her Minnesota-educated kids didn’t know about the important event in state history. “My son said if I was that worked up about it, I should write a book.”

And write a book she did. Two books, actually. And finally, after Simar shopped the books around to various publishing houses for eight years, “Abercrombie Trail” and “Pomme De Terre” were finally published by North Star Press in 2009 and 2010, respectively. It is those books that Simar will be discussing at the Fergus Falls library from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday.

Simar has long been writing short fiction, poetry, inspirational pieces and anthology work, but she’s found that the research she’s done for her two historical novels has turned her into something of an amateur historian.

“I thought (the events surrounding the Sioux uprising) was history worth saving, in a fictional account anyway,” she said. “I take historical events and use them as a backdrop for fictional characters.”

The backdrop of her first two novels (she has a third book with some of the same characters coming out next year) is a now-little known aspect of Minnesotan history. The 1862 Sioux uprising, Simar explained, was the largest Indian war in U.S. history and resulted in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, when 38 Sioux Indians were hanged on Dec. 26 of that year.

The uprising began because the Union army needed funding during the Civil War, causing the federal government to fall very far behind on payments owed to the Sioux in government treaties. The Sioux, who at that time were settled in the Dakotas, western Minnesota and Iowa, were starving, unable to hunt because the land around them had been given to farmers. Realizing that most of the white men in the area were away fighting the Civil War, some members of the Sioux saw what they thought was their chance to rid the area of white settlers.

During the uprising, which officially lasted from August through December, 882 settlers, most of them women or children. It is not known how many Sioux died.

“It resulted in the expulsion of the Sioux nation … first to Nebraska, and then they were given reservations in the Dakota territory, where they remain,” Simar said, adding that the reason the events remain obscure is that the country was in throes of the Civil War. “It was basically unknown because it happened during the bloodiest battles in U.S. history.”

Residents of Otter Tail, Grant, Douglas and Wilkin counties should find Simar’s books particularly interesting because they are peppered throughout with local cities. Though she has lived all of her adult life in Pequot Lakes, Simar said she frequently draws on her youthful memories of her time in West Central Minnesota, and places like Fergus Falls, Underwood, Elbow Lake, Foxhome and Alexandria show up in her books on a regular basis. The trials of Scandinavian settlers in the area are also frequently explored.

“I feel a strong connection to the area,” she said. “That’s home. It always will be.”

“Abercrombie Trail” looks at the primary uprising through the eyes of a stagecoach driver Simar modeled on her Norwegian immigrant great-grandfather. “Pomme De Terre,” which centers on the no longer existent Fort Pomme De Terre near Elbow Lake, focuses on the aftermath of the conflict, when Simar said the Sioux were still conducting raids into land populated with settlers. “Birdie,” her third and final novel in the loosely connected trilogy, will hit bookshelves next year. It focuses on farmers in Otter Tail County during the grasshopper plagues of the 1870s.

When she speaks at the library during the free event on Tuesday, Simar will take questions and discuss the uprising and the lessons that can be learned from it.

“There’s a lot to be learned from just acknowledging what happened and trying to figure it out and making sure that we don’t do it again,” she said.

Simar’s talk is the first in the library’s ongoing Author Visits series. The visits are made possible by funding from the state’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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