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Author Phyllis Cole-Dai is sharing her novel about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 on Sept. 26 | Local

Author Phyllis Cole-Dai’s novel “Beneath the Same Stars” is based on real events and actual people.

She’ll talk about the stories behind the novel and how the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 influenced her writing at two local presentations on Thursday, Sept. 26: 2 p.m. at the McLeod County Historical Museum and 6 p.m. at the Glencoe Public Library.

When asked about the plot of her book, Cole-Dai summed it up in a nutshell: “Sara Wakefield, the wife of John Wakefield, a doctor at the Upper Sioux Agency, and her two young children were taken captive on the first day of the war. One of her captors recognized her from years before. We don’t know what transpired. … What I propose in the book is that (because) of the kindnesses she had shown before, he argued for her life. He was responsible for her welfare and protected Sarah and her children throughout the war. Their relationship had tragic consequences.”

The South Dakota author didn’t know anything about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 until 2012 during the observance of its 150th anniversary.

“That’s when I heard about,” she said. “It was a pivotal event, and many people don’t know it ever happened. I didn’t know. When I became acquainted with the history, a lot of issues that had contributed to the uprising are still with us today, suffering on all sides. I felt compelled to learn more and respond through fiction.”

There were gaps in the historical record, so Cole-Dai took creative license to imagine how to fill those blanks.

“Stories get us deeper into the heart of things than a recitation of historical facts might,” she said. “This history is still with us. The traumas suffered on both sides continue. They’ve been passed down through the generations. I think those factors that led to the uprising are still with us. … We have to grapple with our history and what it can teach us so we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

If you ever wonder how books can make a difference, Cole-Dai can tell you.

“In New Ulm, a gentleman who had read my novel said he had been trying his entire life to hate the Indians who had supposedly massacred his relatives at Swan Lake,” she said. “This Indian had been hanged in Mankato.”

“I’m not able to hate that man anymore,” he told her. “He was a human being. He was trying to do the best he could in the circumstances he found himself in.”

“It was very emotional,” Cole-Dai said about the encounter. “A big weight had been lifted off him. This is just an example. For a lot of people, these events aren’t that long ago. We carry a big burden. I’m trying to provide some reflection and discussion.”

“Beneath the Same Stars” is Cole-Dai’s ninth book.

“I’m a genre hopper,” she said. “I rely on projects that pick me. That’s not good from a marketing perspective. I co-edited ‘Poetry of Presence,’ an award-winning poetry book, with a friend. Another book I’m well known for is ‘The Emptiness of Our Hands.’ It’s in its third printing. It chronicles living 47 days on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, by choice. It’s the nation’s 15th largest city.”

Cole-Dai and her co-author, James Murray, went out on the street to be a compassionate presence to the people they met there.

“We discovered we needed the compassion of other people to survive,” she said. “It was a very pivotal event in our lives. The book is a window for people who have a home, to look for and see what it is like for someone who doesn’t have a home.”

She admitted that it took years of counseling to get over the experience. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and can’t go into enclosed spaces. She also has panic attacks.

“I tried to be as present as I could and let it go, appreciate the little things,” she said. “When you’re suffering, even if you’re suffering by choice, little things matter. They can cut you deeply or lift you up mightily.”

It’s not uncommon for someone who has a home and is working to point to a homeless person and say something such as, “All they need to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

“There’s nobody who pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps,” she said. “We need a lot of help. We forget that part. We left my home in the suburbs. We looked scruffy. We didn’t intentionally try and make ourselves scruffy, but after a couple of blocks, someone yelled at us to get a job. The judgment was right there in our face.”

The decision to spend 47 days on the streets was made because they thought it would resonate by providing a spiritual framework to their experience.

“We picked Lenton (season),” she said. “We left Ash Wednesday and returned on Easter, 47 days. That was in 1999. Within nine months, I had relocated to South Dakota. Talk about culture shock.”


Writing is something that has been part of Cole-Dai’s life for as long as she can remember.

“I thought first I would be a poet,” she said. “It was around third grade. I had a teacher who inspired my poetry writing. I shifted to fiction in junior high when my parents dragged out an old manual typewriter my dad had used during the one semester he attended Ohio State University. That’s what I learned on, that clickety-clack typewriter. I stuck with it. The urge to write has been there early on. My parents weren’t college educated. We were a farm family. They encouraged me without knowing how I would make a living at it.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English and two master’s degrees in theological studies and English, Cole-Dai was working on her doctorate dissertation when she was called to jury duty.

“I was stuck for two weeks sitting there playing cards, yacking it up,” she recalled. “People would ask me what did I do. I would try and describe (to them) what I was researching. Their eyes would glaze over. What I was doing was so far removed from their life experiences. I wanted to write things that would matter to people, to let them think and feel.”

After that experience, she sat down with her scientist husband and explained how she felt. Together they made the decision that she would follow her heart, and they would live on his income.

“I’m very grateful to be in a relationship with someone who is trying to help me be the best I can be,” she said. “I try to reciprocate that. We have an amazing son who is 17. He is an amazing blessing.”


Cole-Dai’s book about Sarah Wakefield and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is her first historical novel.

“I had to read everything I could get my hands on about the uprising and talk to as many native people as I could,” she said. “It really stretched me to find native people to advise me. I had a rough outline of the captivity narrative because Sarah Wakefield had written a captivity narrative. She’s not always a reliable narrator. I used it as a rough outline for that portion of the novel.”

Unlike authors who create a detailed outline on which to base their writing, Cole-Dai takes a more organic approach.

“It takes on a life of its own,” she said.

The author said she tore apart her historical novel and put it back together four or five times until she was satisfied.

“You never know,” she said. “The next thing you learn turns everything on its head and you have to revamp everything. I left hundreds of pages on the cutting room floor. You can’t be too wedded to anything you’ve written, and you have to be ready to cut, cut, cut and rely on your editors to give you good advice.”

While some writers have multiple projects going at any one time, Cole-Dai prefers tackling one project at a time. She works a normal business day from 8 in the morning until about 6 in the evening. She admits to losing herself in the work with researching going hand in hand with the writing during the course of a given day.

“I think sometimes you have a sense of where a book ends,” she said. “It’s how do you get there. When I lay out a road map where I think I need to go, something happens.”

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