In her profoundly moving first novel, THE SEED KEEPER, Diane Wilson tells the story of Rosalie Iron Wing and her family’s struggle to preserve their cultural heritage. Flashing back and forth in time from Rosalie’s present day, to her early childhood, to the lives of her ancestors, Wilson reveals the devastation wreaked by white settlers on the family’s way of life.
Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, and orphaned at the age of twelve after her father’s death, Rosalie was sent to live with a white foster family, where her soul withered as her native beliefs and practices were disparaged. When a white farmer asks her to marry him, Rosalie is hesitant – her father had warned her about such unions, but Rosalie had few options and John seemed to mirror her own sense of loneliness. At eighteen, she knows little of her family or her cultural heritage.
As the book opens, Rosalie, recently widowed, returns to the cabin from which she was taken as a child. She is broken. Her husband is dead, and she is estranged from their only child, a son, who wishes to continue the farming practices that most likely contributed to the death of his father. At the cabin, Rosalie comes slowly back to life, nurtured by the woods, the river, and her childhood memories, as well as the kindness of a neighbor.
Woven throughout, are chapters told from the perspective of Rosalie’s ancestors who had been stripped of their land and their way of life – Marie Blackbird and her family were scattered when the fighting broke out in 1862, hiding from soldiers who were rounding up the men and imprisoning them, stealing their dried meat and trampling their carefully planted gardens of beans and corn. The women, recognizing that their future depended on their store of seeds, carried them sewn into their skirt hems into the future.
These stories, juxtaposed against Rosalie’s, as she witnesses the destructive farming practices on her husband’s farm and the harm it causes to the environment and the people who currently live on the land, hone the story’s message: the imperative to return to more sustainable practices, and to a place of reverence and respect for the land, the plants, the animals, and the lives that depend upon them.
In her Author’s Note, Diane Wilson writes that the book was inspired by a story she’d heard while participating in the Dakhota Commemorative March, a 150 mile walk to honor the Dakhota people who were forcibly removed from Minnesota in 1863, in the aftermath of the US-Dakhota War. The women on that original march had little time to prepare for their removal, but knew they would have to find a way to feed their families in whatever place they were being sent, so they sewed seeds into the hems of their skirts and hid more in their pockets.
“The strength these women demonstrated, the profound love they showed for their children, and their willingness to make sacrifices so the people would survive became the heart of this book.” She writes, “These women are the reason why we have Dakhota corn today.”
THE SEED KEEPERS is a lyrical love song written for those Dakhota women. I highly recommend it for fans of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Diane Wilson on Superior Reads this September and register to take a class with Diane at the Grand Marais Art Colony in November.