Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Finally, well into COVID-19, I go to the library August 11, 2020

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I’VE PREVIOUSLY POSTED about my deep love of libraries tracing back to my childhood. As a child, I had limited access to books. My small rural Minnesota community had no library. Nor did my elementary school, which sourced books from the county library 20 miles away in Redwood Falls. On occasion, I would be among students selected to board a school bus to travel to that library and return with books temporarily borrowed for our school. I loved those opportunities to browse and choose.


The LFL installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe in July 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.


Today my hometown of Vesta still does not have a public library. County bookmobile service ended long ago with budget cuts. But, thanks to my efforts and those of locals and the generosity of Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol, a LFL sits outside the Vesta Cafe with additional materials inside. Bol gifted the mini library to my hometown in July 2012.


A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Fast forward eight years and these mini libraries are seemingly everywhere. And during a global pandemic, especially when public libraries closed for a period (some still with restricted hours), the LFLs proved invaluable to book lovers like me. I found a few good books to read, but still longed to step inside a public library with an abundance of reading materials. That happened three weeks ago.


This photograph was taken last September (pre pandemic) outside the Northfield Public Library during a cultural event there.


Randy and I headed up to neighboring Northfield on a recent Saturday afternoon to look for and check out items at the library. Unlike Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, the Northfield Public Library reopened months ago (May 26) for regular hours that include evenings and weekends. That makes it accessible to everyone. Masking, social distancing and other protocols are in place and required to protect patrons and staff.


The books and magazines I checked out from the Northfield library.


I arrived at the NPL with a list of books I wanted. I wasn’t sure computers would be available to access the card catalog. Because I am unfamiliar with the lay-out of the library, I needed help to find some titles and staff generously assisted. I left with a bag full of seven books and two magazines.



Since then, I’ve been happily reading my stash of Minnesota-authored books. Only one—Love Thy Neighbor, A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock—was not on my list. I spotted the book on a shelf of library staff picks, this one recommended by Sue. I read the book in a single day. One day. That’s how good this book is and how necessary to read. Especially today when headlines daily reveal instances of hatred, racism and so much more dividing our country. Insensitive, inflammatory, just plain horrible words and actions, including in southern Minnesota.

In summary, Love Thy Neighbor is the story of a medical doctor who relocates his family from a busy eastern urban setting to rural southwestern Minnesota to practice medicine as he desires, with a deeper personal connection to patients. Initially, all goes well and Dr. Virji and his family find themselves settling in, accepted, enjoying their new life in rural Minnesota. But then the November 2016 election happens and things begin to change. And that is the focus of this book—the shift in attitudes toward Muslims, how that negativity affected this small town family doctor and his family, and what he did about it.

I’d encourage you to read this enlightening book that recaps Virji’s struggles and the community talks he gave to help those in his small Minnesota community (and elsewhere) to understand his faith and the challenges he faces in a more toxic national environment.



Once I finished that book, I moved onto another environment—into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota in A Year in the Wilderness, Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters by Amy and Dave Freeman. It’s been an enjoyable escape into the remote wild, to a place I’ve only ever visited through others. The Freemans, like Dr. Virji, wrote their book with a purpose. To educate, to enlighten and to protect the BWCAW from sulfide-ore copper mining. Incredible photos enhance this detailed documentation of living for a year in the wild. I’d highly recommend this title also.


I especially enjoy reading books by Minnesotans and appreciate the Northfield library tagging these books with Minnesota-shaped art.


The remaining books in my library book stash are mysteries/mystery thrillers, my preferred genre. I quickly read Desolation Mountain by one of my favorite Minnesota authors, William Kent Krueger. Interestingly enough, that fictional story in the Cork O’Connor series also references potential mining near the BWCAW.

New-to-me author Chris Norbury’s books, Castle Danger and Straight River, also connect to the northeastern Minnesota wilderness. And southern Minnesota, where the main character returns to the family farm in Straight River. I always enjoy reading books that include familiar places. Norbury lives in Owatonna and references area communities. And those of you who grew up in this region recognize that the book titles are actually an unincorporated community in northeastern Minnesota and a river here in southern Minnesota.

I’m determined to stretch my reading beyond the seed mystery love planted decades ago through Nancy Drew books. To that end, I appreciate when library staff pull and showcase books they recommend. Like Dr. Virji’s book.

And I appreciate libraries. I look forward to the day when Faribault’s library opens again for regular hours. Currently, it’s open by appointment only, for 30-minute Browse-and-Go Visits between 10 am – 5 pm weekdays or for No-Contact Curbside Pickup. Because Randy is gone to work between those hours, he has no opportunity to get books locally. And so we will continue our trips to Northfield.

Now, you may wonder why these two communities within 20 minutes of each other and in the same county differ in library reopening. I expect it has much to do with numbers, usage and demographics as it relates to COVID-19. My county of Rice, according to information posted by Rice County Public Health on August 7, has had 1,020 lab confirmed cases* of COVID since March. That breaks down to 830 cases in Faribault. Northfield has had far fewer at 141. The balance of 49 cases are spread throughout other communities in Rice County.

I can only speculate that numbers factor into local library decisions about operations. But who knows? I am a word person, not a numbers person.


FYI: My friend Sue Ready, a book lover and writer who lives in the Minnesota northwoods, is a good source of info about Minnesota-authored books. She reviews books on her Ever Ready blog, Click here. Sue also heads up the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack, MN., which brings together Minnesota artists and authors. This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.

* The number of COVID-19 cases in Rice County as of Monday, August 10, were 1,038.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


19 Responses to “Finally, well into COVID-19, I go to the library”

  1. Ruth Says:

    I love libraries too. I’m glad you were able to get a bag of books to take home and read. So satisfying.

  2. I am an avid reader (read at least 20 books a month) and knew libraries would be closing due to COVID. I gifted myself a Kindle and a few months into I enjoy the electronic device. However, I do still miss a real book in my hands. I will have to check out Chris Norbury as well as Love Thy Neighbor. I am familiar with Kruger and Sanford. Great Reads – Happy Reading! Be Safe and Take Care 🙂

    • That’s a lot of books read in a month. I’m impressed. Yes, check out those two books you reference from my list. I’m pretty sure you will enjoy them.

      I don’t have an electronic device to read books on and don’t intend to get one due to vision issues. Give me a print copy. But I’m thankful it works for you.

  3. Susan Ready Says:

    Your blog posting was thoughtfully written with many good recommended book titles. I love the Little Free Library concept and pleased to see them in city and rural areas making books more accessible to people. Northwoods Arts Council appreciates the shout out for our 2020 Author Virtual Tour. This Covid crisis has been difficult for authors whose spring, summer and fall events have been cancelled. It’s also hard times for the publishing industry. Your support is needed now more than ever.
    Thanks Audrey for this posting today which makes an important contribution to the community.

  4. Yea, I’m glad you could get your hands on some books, they all look like something I’d read. I have not been to a library for years, not because I don’t read…I do.
    It’s just that It takes me forever to read a book, so I have an on-line company that sends my .99 book options to read on my Nook. That way I don’t have to worry about how long it takes me and I have a lot of different books to choose from. One of Rick’s favorite authors is William Kent Krueger, he has read many of his books. Happy Reading Audrey!
    Oh…. and I think it’s neat how you go to go pick out books from a neighboring town library when you were a child, such a fun thing to do.

  5. valeriebollinger Says:

    I have reserved the Love Thy Neighbor book. Sounds very interesting, as do the other titles in your blog.
    I’m thankful for libraries…and that our Northfield library is open again. I feel very safe going there.
    I’m still reading to the grandkids in CO so I check out lots of children’s books, as well as any I want to read.

    • I felt totally safe at the Northfield library also. Very few people there and plenty of safety precautions in place. I think you will enjoy Love Thy Neighbor.

      And I love that you’re still reading to Zoey and Ezra long-distance.

  6. Bernadette Thomasy Says:

    Lucky you, got to browse the library shelves. Our Sacramento libraries still have only curbside pickup through online reservations, but they are creative. They just started a new “personal shopper” service where the staff will browse for patrons using their preferences, etc. I haven’t used it but just got a bag of six for my 8-yr-old granddaughter who was totally pleased. Thanks for your interesting book recommendations. More titles I can request.

  7. Thanks to Sue Ready for bringing this blog to my attention, and thanks a lot to Audrey for showing my books in this blog post! What a nice surprise. 🙂 I’m honored that you included me with two of my MN writing inspirations, Krueger and Sandford. And I’m a BWCAW canoeist, so the Freemans’ book is on my TBR list too.

    I had no idea the Northfield Library has been open all summer. Mine isn’t (Owatonna). I assumed all libraries are closed to indoor browsing/checkout traffic. I may have to get up there to get my fix of “library aroma” and the good vibe I feel when I’m surrounded by thousands of books.

    Stay healthy and sane, everyone. And keep on reading and sharing your favorite reads with others.


    • Chris, I thoroughly enjoyed your books and do hope you are working on a third in this series. You have a strong sense of place as well as strong character development and storylines that keep me reading (when I should maybe be doing something else).

      I’ll make another trip to the Northfield Library soon as I’m nearly done with all the books in my stack. Like you, I need my library fix. Happy reading to you. And happy writing.

  8. You collected from the library many titles that are on my list to read! Thanks for your insights. Hopefully I won’t have to buy them all online. One of my first stops when I return to MN each time is a public library, Washington County in Forest Lake has a wonderful space. Moose Lake Public Library is my hometown library and walking in and being greeted by long time librarians and volunteers is one of the best highlights of my trip. Growing up without a TV it was my link to adventure and the wonderfully possible things in the world through someone else’s imagination or eyes. Thank you Minnesota Public Libraries!!!

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