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“This is conquered land.” The Dakota woman’s words, spoken at a community meeting in St. Paul, struck Nora Murphy forcefully. Her own Irish great-great grandparents, fleeing the potato famine, had laid claim to 160 acres in a virgin maple grove in Minnesota. That her dispossessed ancestors’ homestead, The Maples, was built upon another, far more brutal dispossession is the hard truth underlying White Birch, Red Hawthorn, a memoir of Murphy’s search for the deeper connections between this contested land and the communities who call it home.
In twelve essays, each dedicated to a tree significant to Minnesota, Murphy tells the story of the grove that, long before the Irish arrived, was home to three Native tribes: the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk. She notes devastating strategies employed by the U.S. government to wrest the land from the tribes, but also revisits iconic American tales that subtly continue to promote this displacement—the Thanksgiving story, the Paul Bunyan myth, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Murphy travels to Ireland to search out another narrative long hidden—that of her great-great-grandmother’s transformative journey from North Tipperary to The Maples.
In retrieving these stories, White Birch, Red Hawthorn uncovers lingering wounds of the past—and the possibility that, through connection to this suffering, healing can follow. The next step is simple, Murphy tells us: listen.