Author Interviews
3:55 am
Sat February 1, 2014

Born Together, Then Torn Apart, In Civil War-Era Minnesota

Originally published on Sat February 1, 2014 11:00 pm

Clement and Angel, fraternal twins separated at birth, have very different lives. After being abandoned, both are raised in Stillwater, Minn., around the time of the Civil War. But Clement dwells among orphans and prostitutes; Angel is adopted by a wealthy couple, and she lives in the town's mansion.

In Stillwater, Nicole Helget's latest novel, the twins grow up in a landscape filled with colorful characters: trappers, loggers, outlaws, nuns, Native Americans and runaway slaves. And the land itself is vibrant. You can see its significance from the very first words of the novel — in fact, from the book's dedication:

"To the great state of Minnesota, to every last noble tree, fresh waterway, glittering fish, singing fowl, woodland creature, field rock, swaying prairie, March skunk, October monarch, star-splattered November night sky, head-clearing January wind, and rich black clump of soil. To all the citizen stewards, sinners, orphans, mothers and myths."

Helget's earlier works include a novel, The Turtle Catcher, and a memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways. NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Helget about life in the Minnesota wilderness during the 1860s.


Interview Highlights

On the photo that inspired the character of Clement

It was a photo of a logjam on the St. Croix [River], north of Stillwater, and the photo was taken I think in 1883, so about 20 years, I guess, after the Civil War ended. But there's a man sitting on a log, and I took a good look at him. And he seemed to have, to me, a Civil War face. And I feel like I fell into an emotional portal and his life story just sort of revealed itself to me. And he became my Clement.

On surviving in the age before antibiotics and antihistamines

I think about that kind of thing all the time, and I'm not sure exactly why. I spend a lot of time outside, and even when it's cold, I like to go outside. And I often find myself wondering how people physically survived in these elements 150 and 200 years ago.

Especially when I was pregnant, I would stand out there and I would think to myself: "My goodness, women used to give birth in this kind of weather. Some of them would give birth in wagons. Some of them would give birth in tepees, and they might have six or seven other children running around." It just impressed me so much that it felt like something I wanted to portray in this book.

On how adoption worked in the late 19th century, and the role it plays in her novel

In the time that Clement and Angel are born, there is no real paperwork being filed for anything. There's some treaty negotiations going on in Minnesota territory, but that's about as legal (if you want to call it legal) as it gets.

But Mother St. John, the character in my book who takes in a lot of these orphans, is overwhelmed with children and with sick people. And when a couple who appears to have money and appears to really want a child comes in to get one, she is happy to turn over Angel to the couple, because she believes that they're going to take good care of her. They don't take very good care of her in the end.

On Big Waters, who was abandoned by her husband and chooses to take care of Clement

I did a lot of research into the history of the territory and the area where we now live, and I realized that sexism wasn't unique to the white condition. In the Native American tribes, if a husband decided he no longer needed his wife, he could easily discard her. And it seemed appropriate to me to put Big Waters with Mother St. John, because Big Waters would have had this very kind heart and would have wanted to be helpful and to keep mothering.

Clement was a good fit for her because Clement is very sensitive to the things that Big Waters would be sensitive to: the land, the water and traditions. And they help each other. He's not always receptive to her help, but in the end, it's their relationship that is probably the most healthy in the book.

On being called a "Minnesota novelist"

I'm proud of it. And I'm happy with that, and I'll always, I think, be proud of it. I, at this point, hope that it reaches a larger audience, but when I initially begin writing, I am writing for two Minnesotans who are the two members of my writing group. And that's all I ever think about. And if I can make those two guys smile or think, or sometimes laugh, then I know I'm onto something because they're pretty particular.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Stillwater" is a new novel that sweeps you along from the first words - I mean the very first words: the dedication. Nicole Helget is the author. Could you please read that dedication for us?

NICOLE HELGET: Sure, Scott. (Reading) To the great state of Minnesota, to every last noble tree, fresh waterway, glittering fish, singing fowl, woodland creature, field rat, swing prairie, march skunk, October monarch, star-splattered November night sky, head-clearing January wind and rich black clump of soil. To all the citizen stewards, sinners, orphans, mothers and myths.

SIMON: And the novel spreads out from there, all through that landscape, the story of Angel and Clement, fraternal twins separated at birth who grow up on opposite sides of the tracks as the Civil War advances, and colorful characters, including trappers, loggers, outlaws, nuns, Indians and runaway slaves fill the landscape with their struggles and stories. Nicole Helget, the author of "Stillwater," a previous novel called "The Turtle Catcher," and an acclaimed memoir, "The Summer of Ordinary Ways," joins us from the studios, of course, of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Thanks so much for being with us.

HELGET: I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: So, there's nothing still in the water in Stillwater, Minnesota, is there?

HELGET: Not really. Except for the opening chapter where there's a logjam holding up the St. Croix River.

SIMON: And tell us about that. 'Cause I gather there was a photo of that that began to get your mind working.

HELGET: Yeah. It was a photo of a logjam on the St. Croix, north of Stillwater, and the photo was taken, I think, in 1883, so about 20 years, I guess, after the Civil War ended. But there's a man sitting on a log, and I took a good look at him, and he seemed to have to me a Civil War face. And I feel like I fell into an emotional portal and his life story just sort of revealed itself to me and he became my Clement.

SIMON: The book is such a piece of history but a lot of the narrative pull comes out of the very gritty details of what it was like to live 150 years ago, including - and I don't know why this struck me so - what it was like to be sick in the age before antibiotics and antihistamines.

HELGET: Right. I think about that kind of thing all the time and I'm not sure exactly why. I spend a lot of time outside and even when it's cold I like to go outside. And I often find myself wondering how people physically survived in these elements 150 and 200 years ago. And especially when I was pregnant, I would stand out there and I would think to myself, my goodness, women used to give birth in this kind of weather. Some of them would give birth in wagons. Some of them would give birth in teepees, and they might have six or seven other children running around. And it just impressed me so much that it felt like something I wanted to portray in this book.

SIMON: You watch any amount of movies growing up in this country and you have, you know, an idea that the West was open by brave, occasionally marauding people who would undertake audacious ventures, and that's true. But this book makes us understand sometimes the most audacious thing of all was to give birth in the Midwest...

HELGET: Oh, yes.

SIMON: ...wilderness.

HELGET: Right. But I think through my research and then just my experiences with my children, the book became about women and about mothers who adopt children and mothers who have children and what their plight must have been like in those days and how they really were the cornerstone of westward expansion.

SIMON: Yeah. And adoption, if we might touch on that for a moment, was - I don't want to say casual - you didn't necessarily go through a lot of interviews and had to have a lot of paperwork stamped, did you?

HELGET: No, not in those days. In the time that Clement and Angel are born, there's no real paperwork being filed for anything. There's some treaty negotiations going on in Minnesota Territory, but that's' about as legal - if you want to do call it legal - as it gets. But Mother St. John, the character in my book that takes in a lot of these orphans, is overwhelmed with children and with sick people. And when a couple who appears to have money and appears to really want a child come in to get one, she is happy to turn over Angel to the couple because she believes that they're going to take good care of her. They don't take very good care of her in the end, but...

SIMON: And Clement, of course, is introduced as the character of Big Waters, who comes to care for the abandoned Clement. I love Big Waters.

(LAUGHTER)

HELGET: I do, too.

SIMON: I believe she thinks we're a good pair; young and old, abandoned boy and discarded wife.

HELGET: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: I will care for him as my own. It's a very touching story. And where does that come from?

HELGET: I did a lot of research into the history of the territory and the area where we now live. And I realized that sexism wasn't unique, you know, to the white condition. And in the Native American tribes, if a husband decided he no longer needed his wife, he could easily discard her. And it seemed appropriate to me to put Big Waters with Mother St. John because Big Waters would have had this very kind heart and would have wanted, you know, to be helpful and to keep mothering. Clement was a good fit for her because Clement is very sensitive to the things that Big Waters would be sensitive to - the land, the water and traditions - and they help each other. He's not always receptive to her help but in the end it's their relationship that's probably the most healthy in the book.

SIMON: So, who do you feel about the phrase Minnesota novelist?

HELGET: I'm proud of it and I'm happy with that, and I'll always, I think, be proud of it. I, at this point, hope that it reaches a larger audience. But when I initially begin writing, I'm writing for two Minnesotans who are the two members of my writing group, and that's all I ever think about. And if I can make those two guys smile or think or sometimes laugh then I know I'm onto something because they're pretty particular.

SIMON: Nicole Helget. Her acclaimed new novel is "Stillwater." Thanks so much for being with us.

HELGET: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.