Minnesota native Nicole Helget will release her latest novel “Stillwater” in the town that bears the same name.
Helget will host a release party sponsored by Valley Bookseller at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the Lowell Inn, 102 Second St. N.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book is set just before the Civil War.
Raised in the same small community, Angel and Clement, fraternal twins separated at birth, grow up in practically different worlds — she, wealthy but unloved in the richest household in town; and he, among orphans, Indians and runaway slaves. They rarely meet, but Clement knows if he is truly in need, Angel will come to save him.
Near the Mississippi River and Canada, Stillwater becomes an important stop on the Underground Railroad. As the Civil War draws near, the territory of Minnesota is at a crossroads, and Stillwater becomes a juncture between slavery and freedom, between rugged independence and reliance on the outside world. Readers follow Clement and Angel through infancy, adulthood, abandonment, war,
imprisonment, confessions and reconciliations.
Also revealed are the hardscrabble lives of pioneers, nuns, squaws, fur trappers, loggers, soldiers, politicians and prostitutes, all clawing toward the free and prosperous future. Meanwhile Clement and Angel struggle for freedom from their families, their destinies and sometimes, each other.
Nicole Helget grew up on a farm in Southern Minnesota and is the author of two previous books also set in Minnesota: a memoir, “The Summer of Ordinary Ways,” and a novel, “The Turtle Catcher,” winner of the Tamarack Prize.
Helget took time to answer questions the book. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Oh, lots of things. (A) photo of a logjam on the St. Croix River, for one.
Also, I read and reread Victor Hugo, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Manfred, Willa Cather and lots of other writers. A bevy of personal narratives, newspaper articles and letters from the time period also caught my attention; as I read them I started writing “Stillwater,” thinking that the story would mostly be Clement’s. But the more that I added, the more mothers seemed to take over. This makes sense as I birthed two babies in the years it took to write “Stillwater.” The babies were Archibald and Gordon, a year and a half apart, my last two of six. My mind was often turned to pregnancy, birthing, nursing and overwhelming fatigue.
Q: You seem to spend a lot of time writing about the past — why?
A: Well, for one, I feel a deep connection to the domestic lives of women from the past. I can’t help it. Living in a small, hundred-year-old house with a large family, I feel one blown fuse away from pre-electricity survival. I hyperbolize a bit, but I really do spend a lot of time cooking, cleaning, and caretaking. These themes appeared in my earlier work of literary historical fiction, “The Turtle
Also, I felt that — had I the opportunity or choice to participate in the creation of a new place, like the characters in “Stillwater” — I would have taken it. I would have been the one to step forward with all my kids dripping off me like sap. I would have been the woman who would have gotten in the boat to cross an ocean. I would have been the woman who then piled the children into a wagon. I would have been the one with the pioneer spirit, the one looking west.
Q: How do you accurately depict the time period you’re writing about?
A: Reading, viewing, listening and thinking. A long time ago, early in my education, I was lucky to have a couple of teachers who taught me how to research — how to go deep beyond the Google search and find documents, videos, photographs, articles, maps and a glut of other wonderful sources of information. My alma mater of Minnesota State University, Mankato, devotes an entire room of its library to Minnesota history. In St. Paul, the Minnesota Historical Society has an enormous library, rotating exhibits, and a vast online database of information. In these physical and electronic spaces, for example, I’ve found personal narratives from early settlers moving west, articles from early newspapers and theses from people working on graduate and doctoral degrees. Accounts from ordinary people interest me the most.
For the novel Stillwater, I found the impetus for my escaped slave, Eliza Christmas, in these places. The character Eliza Christmas is based on a real woman, Eliza Winston, who came to Minnesota with her Mississippi masters and earned her freedom with the help of freed African Americans living in Minnesota and the Minnesota courts. After the court ruling, she escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad with the help of Minnesota abolitionists. Interestingly, the real Eliza Winston returned to her masters before the Civil War. This complication of loyalties and perceived duties and physical survival affected me as a writer. All these considerations manifest themselves in Eliza.
I also go outside. I try to find quiet places as close to what the place must have looked, sounded and smelled like over 150 years ago. I take the sensations in. To that end, I spent a good deal of time in the city of Stillwater walking around with my nose in the wind.
Q: Do you ever have any hesitation about writing from the perspective of Native Americans or slaves?
A: No. Not really. With any character, male or female, child or elderly, living in 1850 or 2050, I begin with a connection point — something they want that I can identify with, something they’ve lost that I can identify with, something that hurts that I can identity with, something that’s scary that I can identify with. From there, with good research and mindful imagination, I can get in their head.
Q: Do you worry that you may get pigeonholed as a “regional writer”?
If I do, I try to remember my good Minnesota upbringing and gather my humility. Regional writing can be the writing of all of us. Lonesome Dove, Texas, is a region, Yoknapatawpha County is a region, Hanover, Neb., is a region, Lake Wobegon, Minn., is a region. All small places with large literary reach and influence.
Among my favorite documentarians is Ken Burns. I admire very much the way he chooses small places, but through them tells the story of the nation. Stillwater … is like many other river towns affected by westward expansion and then the Civil War. Its pristine environment suffered unbridled development. Its people got caught up in waves of jealousy, greed, classicism, racism, altruism, kindness and generosity.