Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating William Kent Krueger’s latest bestseller, This Tender Land January 24, 2020

I’VE LONG BEEN A FAN of Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series and stand-alone book, Ordinary Grace. But now I can add another title to that list. This Tender Land.

Ten days after I picked up the book from Buckham Memorial Library, where I’d been on a waiting list for months to get the 2019 release, I’d finished the novel. And I didn’t start reading it immediately as I had to first finish The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal.

In a nutshell, This Tender Land tells the story of orphaned brothers, Odie and Albert, who are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School, although they are not Native Americans. Yes, such schools really existed long ago. The school is not so much a school as a prison with cruelty and abuse defining life there.

This fictional book, set primarily in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, weaves actual history into the storyline. Much of that history focuses on the mistreatment of native peoples during and following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how that carried through to subsequent generations. I’m familiar with that history having grown up in Redwood County, at the epicenter (along with Brown County) of that war. Krueger clearly did his research and then took that information and made it personal through characters, scenes and setting.

But this is much more than a historically-based book of fiction. This is a story about family and friends, about searching and discovery, about hope and despair, about love and loss, about cruelty and kindness, about redefining rich and poor, about anger and spirituality and forgiveness and finding one’s self. This book really makes you think as the story twists and turns and all those themes emerge.

At one point, after reading a line on page 288, I cried. When was the last time you cried while reading a book? I cried at 12-year-old Odie’s observation of women who’ve suffered and yet never given up hope, who’ve forgiven… It was a powerful sentence for me personally.

When a book can move me like that, I feel a deep respect for the author, for his talent, for his writing. There’s a reason William Kent Krueger’s books are bestsellers and in demand at libraries. He writes with depth and authenticity in ways that resonate.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memory in flight January 23, 2020

The fighter jet sculpture located at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

 

SOME MEMORIES REMAIN, decades after the event, forever seared into our minds. But often they stay in the subconscious, surfacing only when triggered by something heard, seen, smelled, tasted, thought.

I hadn’t thought in a long time about the plane. Until I researched the story behind an airplane sculpture at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. I photographed the trio of T-38 Talon Thunderbirds while passing by on Interstate 35 as day broke on a recent Sunday morning.

My mind didn’t shift then to the afternoon decades ago when a fighter jet roared over my childhood farm outside Vesta in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. Rather, my thoughts focused on my mom. We were en route to visit her at a care center in Belview.

But now, weeks later, I sorted through photos taken on that 2.5-hour drive and remembered a summer afternoon in the 1960s. I was outside when the fighter jet flew low and fast over the farmyard, causing me to dive under the B Farmall tractor and the cattle to escape their fence. The sight and sound of that plane terrified me. We seldom saw planes, mostly just the trails of invisible or barely visible slivers of silver jets.

To this day, I don’t know from whence that mystery plane came or why the pilot chose to fly at such a low altitude. I can only speculate that he was on a training mission. And why not conduct that in a sparsely-populated area? Never mind the people or livestock.

That experience resurfaced as I sought out info about the three fighter jets artfully positioned at the Owatonna airport. Initially, they stood outside nearby Heritage Halls Museum, now closed. Museum founder and local businessman and pilot, R.W. “Buzz” Kaplan, led efforts to bring the retired U.S. Air Force jets to the area. Eventually the planes would land permanently at the airport, highly-visible to those traveling along the interstate.

Kaplan, on June 26, 2002, died at this very airport after the plane he was piloting, a replica WW I JN-4D “Jenny” biplane, crashed shortly after take-off. This airport has been the site of several fatal crashes, including one in 2008 which claimed eight lives. I hadn’t thought about that crash either, one of the worst in Minnesota, in a long time.

It’s interesting how the split-second decision to photograph a sculpture of three fighter jets along an interstate can trigger-roll into more than simply an image.

Life is that way. Memories, rising in unexpected moments, connecting to today.

TELL ME: Do you have a long ago memory that sometimes surfaces? I’d like to hear your stories and why that memory remains and others don’t.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Learning to listen January 21, 2020

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I took this photo at an outdoor concert in Faribault several years ago. To me, it illustrates the art of genuine listening. The smile on the woman’s face, the tilt of her head, tell me she is actively listening. Edited Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

 

YESTERDAY IN MY POST honoring the work of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., I emphasized the importance of listening.

Today, in a blog post published on Warner Press, I also emphasize listening. I wrote this post weeks ago, long before I penned the MLK piece. I encourage you to click here and read “Learning to Listen.” I can’t stress enough the importance of this skill in building and improving relationships, in making this world a better place.

Thank you for listening.

Disclaimer: I am paid for my work as blog coordinator and blogger for Warner Press, an Indiana-based Christian publishing company.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. January 20, 2020

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A student watches a video about Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I FINISHED MY BOWL of oatmeal and blueberries this morning, I watched a portion of Good Morning America. A young boy talked about a program he started, Books N Bros, aimed at “empowering boys, promoting literacy, and bringing awareness to African American literature.”

Sidney’s own challenges—specifically with stuttering and bullying—led him to seek refuge in reading. Now he’s using those negative experiences to make a difference by connecting boys to books. His efforts equal love in action, following the example of Martin Luther King Jr.

King rallied and worked for equality on a national stage. I admire his determination, his strength, his hopes, his dreams to make a positive change in this country. We’ve come a long ways. But much still needs to be achieved in racial and other equality.

 

Visitors could photograph themselves and express their thoughts, as shown here in this Polaroid image posted at the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2015..

 

While we need leaders like King and young Sidney to publicly champion for change, we, too, must get involved. It takes all of us, from small towns to major metropolitan areas, to stand up, to speak up, to do something, not just sit there.

So how do we accomplish that? Assess your strengths—because we all have them—and then use them in a positive way. For me, writing and photography prove a powerful tool to connect, to uplift, to inform and more. Words matter. They can help or they can hurt, empower or diminish, support or break down. I recognize the responsibilities I carry as a writer. And as a photographer.

I’ve also been gifted with the ability to listen, a skill that seems more and more a rarity in a seemingly me-centered world. But our family, our friends, our neighbors, even strangers, need us to listen. Just listen. Not turn the conversation to ourselves and our experiences and challenges, but to stay focused on the person talking to us. Them. Not us.

I can’t write enough about the need for compassion. The challenges of life—and I’ve experienced plenty—have made me a stronger and more empathetic person. Some good emerges from every difficulty, although we can’t always see that when we are in the thick of whatever.

Like young book-loving Sidney, I was bullied as a child. Because of that, I advocate kindness. If we all were just a little kinder to one another, not talking at or over others, we would all better understand the perspectives and experiences we bring to conversations. In other words, listen. There’s that word again.

 

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. I’ve never forgotten this powerful message posted in my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

Today and every day, I hope you will take to heart the many inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. and live those words. Through your conversations and your actions.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear how King’s words have inspired you.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Documentation of why you should stay off rural roads during a winter storm January 19, 2020

Just outside of Faribault Saturday afternoon along Rice County Road 25, this old farmhouse was easily visible during the storm.

 

THE WEATHER IN MINNESOTA has calmed considerably since Saturday when high winds created blizzard and near-blizzard conditions throughout much of the state.

Now we’re dealing with frigid temps, just two degrees above zero mid-morning here in Faribault with an expected high of maybe 10 degrees. Yes, that’s cold, even for those of us who are life-long residents. But we’ve seen much colder, in the double digits sub-zero.

Weather often dominates conversation in Minnesota because it so dramatically affects our lives. Our plans. Our off-work time, especially in the winter when snow removal can seem like a part-time job. But, hey, we choose to live here, right?

 

Visibility was good as we started out on CR 25 Saturday afternoon.

 

And sometimes we make choices that aren’t too smart. Like mine yesterday to venture with Randy into the countryside to check out conditions. Per my post late Saturday afternoon, here are more photos from that short drive east of Faribault and back.

 

Lots of farm sites and rural homes hug the roadway, breaking the wind.

 

The American flag flying straight out shows the strength of Saturday’s wind on a rural site just east of Faribault along CR 25.

 

After we passed this barn on our friends’ farm site, conditions deteriorated.

 

Heading east out of town along Rice County Road 25/197th Street East, conditions were good. Blowing snow was minimal and we could easily see farm sites along the route. But then, as we edged into more open land, with no treelines or farm sites breaking the wind, visibility quickly lessened.

 

We drove into near white-out conditions along CR 25 near the intersection with CR 23.

 

Blowing snow diminished visibility.

 

We found ourselves enveloped in white, white-out conditions is the proper term.

 

Snow blows around low-slung buildings along CR 23.

 

Snowdrifts partially edged and crept onto sections of CR 23.

 

As we continued to drive south on CR 23, blowing snow reduced visibility even more.

 

Yes, I was scared and even asked Randy to turn around and retrace our route. Easier said than done. Instead, he eased onto County Road 23. Blowing snow still limited visibility although I could see near-the-road farm sites in the haze of white. Considerable drifting of snow near and onto the road now concerned me.

 

Snow pushed back from the roadway at the intersection of CR 23 and Minnesota State Highway 60 and photographed from the front passenger side window.

 

By the time we reached Minnesota State Highway 60, I was so ready to be done with this little adventure. Plowed snow banked the intersection. Randy rolled down his window to check for oncoming traffic.

 

Once on Minnesota State Highway 60 heading west, travel improved. More farm sites border this highway than along the county roads.

 

Then, thankfully, as we drove west toward Faribault, with less open space and farm sites breaking the wind, visibility improved.

 

Conditions as we approached Faribault were good, considering what we’d just driven through.

 

Lesson learned: Stay home during a winter storm, especially when you advise others to do so.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About the current winter storm in Minnesota…a little advice January 18, 2020

Blowing snow reduces visibility along Rice County Road 25/197th Street East near its intersection with CR 23/Gates Avenue mid-afternoon on Saturday, January 18, 2020.

 

IF ANYONE IN MINNESOTA doubts the danger and fierceness of the current winter storm, just look at this photo.

Taken mid-afternoon, this shows white-out conditions along Rice County Road 25 near Faribault.

In a moment of stupidity, I agreed to go for a little drive in the country. Randy said we’d just head east of town past the rural homes of several friends, then follow another county road for a few miles to Minnesota State Highway 60 that would take us back to town.

Bad idea. The nearer we got to the T intersection of CR 25 and CR 23, the worse the conditions. I admit to a moment or ten of panic when I felt lost in a sea of white. Randy maintained his usual calm demeanor as he turned onto County Road 23 and visibility did not improve. He skirted the edges of drifts, kept the car on the roadway and got us safely to highway 60.

And, no, I did not exit the car to take photos. That would have been a really bad idea given the brutal whipping wind gusting between 30 – 50 mph. People die in weather like this if stranded outdoors. Not that I expected to be stranded. But who does?

If you yell at me in the comments section, your criticism is deserved. Maybe consider this a public service announcement or a first-hand field account from a former journalist.

Stay safe. And don’t be tempted (like me) to venture outside of town during a winter storm/blizzard. Not a good idea.

Watch for more photos in a future post.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Waiting for the winter storm January 17, 2020

I expect the view from my front window to look like this by this afternoon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

WE ARE ONLY HOURS AWAY here in southeastern Minnesota from a major winter storm expected to drop up to a foot of snow on some parts of our state. In my city of Faribault in Rice County, predictions range from five to nine inches.

No matter how you measure it, it’s still snow that will cause travel problems and which needs to be removed. Oh, joy.

 

This photograph, taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota, shows how the wind drives snow across and onto roadways. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2010.

 

But it’s not just the snow that will create issues. It’s the strong wind accompanying the snow. Winds tomorrow in the southwestern part of the state, my home area, could reach 50 mph. Thus the blizzard warning starting at midnight in that region.

 

While in southwestern Minnesota last weekend, I noticed snow already banking in drifts along drainage ditches, here east of Morgan.

 

I’ve experienced enough winter storms on the prairie to appreciate the seriousness of a blizzard. Reduced visibility creates white-out conditions. Snowdrifts block roads. And those powerful winds plunge the “feels like” temperature into the deadly range when exposed to the elements.

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 19 on the west edge of Redwood Falls, a sign advises motorists to check travel information.

 

Still, winter storm after winter storm, people fail to heed the dangers. In and post storm, the media reports vehicles stranded along roadways (mostly interstates) and motorists rescued. I’ve heard of drivers taking back county roads after GPS directed them there because the interstate was closed. Interstate closure is a pretty clear indication that no one should be on the road.

 

I expect lights on this sign to flash today and tomorrow, closing Minnesota State Highway 19 west of Redwood Falls.

 

Along certain sections of interstate and highways, snow gates are closed to block the roadway when travel becomes difficult, if not impossible. Just last week when traveling through Redwood Falls, I noticed signage indicating Minnesota State Highway 19 is closed when the yellow light on the sign flashes. A second sign advised motorists to check state travel conditions on MN511.org. While I appreciate that Minnesota Department of Transportation tool, I’ve often found it’s not updated enough.

The bottom line is this, though: Common sense should tell us to stay off the roads during a winter storm like the one barreling into Minnesota and elsewhere today. That said, I’ve advised the husband to leave work early for his commute home from Northfield, a 22-minute drive on a typical, non-storm day.

For those of you in the path of the winter storm, stay safe.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling