Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Laura fans: Walnut Grove pageant needs financial help after flash flooding July 13, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the pageant site along the banks of Plum Creek taken several years ago..

 

WALNUT GROVE AND LAURA INGALLS WILDER. The two are synonymous. Wilder brought notoriety to this small southwestern Minnesota prairie community with her Little House books. The town embraces the author in its summer-time productions of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. Staged in an outdoor amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek, the pageant brings Wilder’s prairie stories to life. It’s a top-notch show that I’ve seen twice.

 

Plum Creek floods the pageant grounds following torrential rain. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

But now the Wilder Pageant Committee needs financial help to deal with damage caused by early July flash floods that ravaged southwestern Minnesota, including the creek-side performance site. Shows were canceled because of the flood. Volunteers worked hard to clean up the mess so the show could reopen on July 12 with added performances.

 

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are featured on a mural in the heart of Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love that about small towns—the coming together to get a job done. The people of Walnut Grove understand the value of Laura Ingalls Wilder to the local economy. And they are determined that the Big Flood on the Prairie will not stop the show despite damage to sets, costumes, sound and light equipment, and site access roads.

 

Flood clean-up. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

A gofundme page has been set up to help pay for maintenance to aging and flood-damaged facilities. The goal is $30,000. Please consider donating and spread the word.

 

Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

I am a mega fan of Wilder’s descriptive writing. That she lived in a dugout on the banks of Plum Creek in my native Redwood County, on my beloved prairie, endears me even more to this author.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To all the wonderful folks in Walnut Grove and surrounding area, thank you for your tireless efforts to welcome Laura fans from around the world to your community. Even after a devastating flood.

 

Period attire is common among young Laura fans visiting Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

CLICK HERE to reach the gofundme page and learn more.

NOTE: The Ingalls dugout site is temporarily closed due to flooding.

BUT the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove is open.

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Attention, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans: A new must-read book by Marta McDowell September 21, 2017

 

WHEN A PACKAGE LANDED on my front doorstep some 10 days ago, I wondered about its content. I hadn’t ordered anything. But inside I found a newly-released book, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books.

Ah, yes, I had been expecting this. Sort of. But I’d forgotten about the book by bestselling author Marta McDowell that includes three of my photos. More than a year had passed since Marta and I connected.

Now I was holding the results of this New Jersey writer’s intensive research, multi-state visits and hours of writing. It’s an impressive book for the information and the art published therein on the places and plants in the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 

Every summer, the folks of Walnut Grove produce an outdoor pageant based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Many pageant attendees arrive at the show site dressed in period attire and then climb aboard the covered wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I have not yet read the entire book. But I am sharing this new Timber Press release now because Marta will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Avenue, in Minneapolis from 7 – 8 this evening (September 21) to present The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I expect the book to be enthusiastically received here in Minnesota and by Laura fans world-wide.

 

The southwestern Minnesota prairie, in the summer, is a place of remarkable beauty. I shot this image outside Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

I am among those fans with the added bonus of having grown up only three townships north of the Charles and Caroline Ingalls’ North Hero Township home near Walnut Grove in Redwood County, Minnesota. Long before the Little House TV show, long before I realized the popularity of Laura’s book series, I loved her writing. A teacher at Vesta Elementary School read the books aloud to me and my classmates during a post-lunch reading time. That story-time instilled in me a deep love for the written word and a deep connection to The Little House books.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove in 2010.

 

With that background, you can understand my enthusiasm for Marta’s book which focuses on the landscapes and specific plants that surrounded Laura and her family. Laura writes with a strong sense of place, a skill I’ve often considered may trace to her blind sister, Mary. Laura became her sister’s “eyes.”

 

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything. I took this photo at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna during a previous traveling exhibit on Minnesota disasters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Marta writes of specific plants and places in her book, taking the reader from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Missouri and in between—wherever Laura lived. In the section on Walnut Grove, she notes the wild plums, the morning glories and the blue flags (iris) that Laura writes about in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’ve walked that creek and creekbank, seen the Ingalls’ dug-out, wildflowers and plums. I am of this rich black soil, these plants, this land. There’s a comfortable familiarity in reading of this land the Ingalls family eventually left because of a grasshopper infestation and resulting crop failures.

 

My black-eyed susan photo is published in Marta’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To be part of Marta’s book on Laura Ingalls Wilder is an honor. The vintage botanical illustrations, original artwork by Garth Williams, historic photos, maps, ads, current day photos like my three and more make this volume a work of art.

There is much to learn therein, much to appreciate. So for all of you Laura fans out there, take note. You’ll want to add The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books to your collection.

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary copy of this book and was paid for publication of my three photos.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Don’t tell me you’re “fine” when you’re not & other insights March 5, 2017

 

HOW ARE YOU? I’ve never liked that question, even realizing the underlying kindness that laces those three trite words.

The standard answer of “I’m fine” is expected. The truth most often is not.

 

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Now Minneapolis writer Nora McInerny Purmort—who has faced her share of “I’m not fine” days—tackles the “How are you?” question in a podcast series from American Public Media. Terrible, (Thanks for Asking) is a must-listen series in which Nora seeks only honest responses to “How are you?”

I’ve listened to one podcast thus far. “Unbroken” features an interview with sexual assault survivor Sarah Super. It’s an incredible, horrible, powerful and, yes, sometimes graphic, story. But so worth your time for the insights revealed. Sarah is one strong woman. And we can learn so much from her about the importance of speaking up, of being heard and more.

Both she and Nora address the issue of silence. And, yes, I picked that from the interview because silence is all too pervasive. I’m talking the hard, uncomfortable silence that those who have suffered trauma, those who are dealing with health issues, those who are facing unimaginable difficulties and challenges hear. Yes, hear. Silence truly can be deafening.

Sarah cites the reason many friends and loved ones remained silent following her assault: “I didn’t know what to say or do.”

Puh-lease.

“Your silence,” Sarah says, “feels like apathy.” The definition of apathy is lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. Lack of. Imagine how that feels to your loved one who is hurting. Lack of.

Nora reiterates Sarah’s thoughts: “Silence hurts when you are on the other end of something awful.”

In an interview with National Public Radio about her podcast series, Nora repeats, “The worst thing—and it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with death, or if you’re dealing with all of these other things that we’ve talked to people about—silence is the worst thing you can hear from people.”

She gets it. Within six weeks, this young woman lost her father to cancer, miscarried and then lost her husband to brain cancer. Since then, Nora has authored the book It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool, Too). And now the enlightening podcasts have followed.

What can we learn from all of this? My take-away is this: First, we need to speak up, to end the silence, to really care when we ask someone, “How are you?” And then we need to listen, really listen. That means setting aside our stories, our comments, our whatever, and truly focusing on what the other person is telling us. It’s about them. Not us.

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CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a way that Minnesota is breaking the silence on an issue that affects all of us, directly or indirectly.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Kenyon native turns to writing children’s books after MS diagnosis December 4, 2015

WRITER DEBBIE ESTREM’S childhood parallels mine. We both grew up on farms—she near Kenyon in southeastern Minnesota and me 150 miles to the west in Redwood County. She, though, moved into town, unlike me.

 

It's Summertime Book Cover

 

Because of our similar upbringings, I understand her connection to and appreciation for the simple things in life. I see that focus and a strong rural Minnesota influence in her children’s picture books, especially in It’s Summertime, the first volume in a seasonal-themed series. An autumn book, A Time for Fall Fun, just published with the remaining two seasonal titles due to release in 2016.

 

Firefly book cover

 

Her other self-published picture books include Have you ever seen a firefly? and Sights at the Zoo.

Of the three books Debbie sent for possible review, I am focusing here on It’s Summertime. I feel most connected, memory-wise, to the content. Debbie writes from a child’s perspective, showcasing outdoor summer activities such as picnicking, swimming, biking, jumping rope, blowing bubbles and attending the county fair.

It’s refreshing to read a book like this that emphasizes mostly unstructured play and family togetherness. I’m all for kids playing on their own, using their imaginations in unscheduled, unorganized free time.

Debbie’s writing, paired with the art of New Jersey illustrator Kim Sponaugle, makes It’s Summertime a delightful book that is visually and nostalgically appealing. The artist, according to her website, “is known for her bright, colorful style and lovable character expressions that give her illustrations warmth and delight.” Her drawings of happy children transport me to the carefree days of my childhood, back to memories of playing hopscotch at Vesta Elementary School and savoring sugary mini donuts at the Redwood County Fair.

While Kim holds an art degree, Debbie’s educational background is in business. However, she started writing poetry in 2003 and turned to penning children’s picture books after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2010. Unable to continue working and volunteering, Debbie decided to focus on something positive. And for her, that was writing children’s picture books.

Kevin and Debbie Estrem in 2013. Photo courtesy of Debbie Estrem.

Kevin and Debbie Estrem in 2013. Photo courtesy of Debbie Estrem.

Ten percent of each book sale goes toward researching MS, specifically to the Colorado-Wyoming Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Debbie lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and childhood sweetheart, Kevin Estrem, who is retired from an Air Force career.

 

book cover

 

In Sights at the Zoo, Debbie weaves the topic of disabilities into the storyline, helping children to understand why someone uses a wheelchair, walker or other assistive device. The couple’s daughter, Cassi, whose first job out of college focused on researching the cause of MS, suggested her mother write the book. Having once used a cane and walker myself following hip replacement surgery, I appreciate this addition to the story. Debbie currently uses a wheelchair or motorized chair to get around.

This author is hoping, she says, that “discoveries are made for both the cause (of MS) and a cure in my lifetime.”

 

Fall book cover

 

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED in purchasing one of Debbie’s picture books, visit the Halo Publishing International website by clicking here.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover images courtesy of Debbie Estrem. Cover art by Kim Sponaugle.

 

Edna who? April 25, 2014

Edna Ferber portrait displayed at the History Museum at the Castle.

Edna Ferber portrait, photographed from a display at the History Museum at the Castle.

WHO IS EDNA FERBER?

Do you know?

I should. I’m a writer.

But I didn’t. Although now I do.

Thanks to an exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin, followed by additional online research, I now know some basic facts about this Pulitzer Prize winning author. In 1925, Ferber won a Pulitzer for her novel, So Big. Set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, the book tells the story of widowed Selina DeJong and her struggles to support herself and her son. That novel is now on my must-read list.

I think I would appreciate the writing of a woman “hailed for sensitively portraying working Americans, for calling attention to women’s roles in American history, and for writing with a journalist’s knack for precise vocabulary and vivid description,” according to info posted in the museum exhibit.

She sounds like one strong woman.

At age 17, Ferber became the first woman reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent. Seventeen. Her work as editor of her Appleton high school newspaper apparently impressed the Crescent editor.

Over a 50-year span, this prolific writer would pen a dozen novels, 11 short story collections, six major plays and two autobiographies.

Wow.

Her best known works include Show Boat, made into the celebrated musical in 1927; Cimarron, adapted into the 1931 film which won an Academy Award for Best Picture; Giant, a 1956 Hollywood movie; and that Pulitzer novel, So Big.

According to info on the History Museum at the Castle website, Ferber is known for her “wit and perspectives on growing up in a small Midwestern town.”

Now that I can really appreciate.

READERS, have any of you read Ferber’s work or seen the films inspired by her writing?

Click here to read Ferber’s biography published on the Appleton Public Library website.

This quote, showcased in the History Museum at the Castle display, rings true for me as a writer.

This quote, showcased in the History Museum at the Castle display, rings true for me as a writer, too.

History Museum at the Castle, 330 East College Avenue, Appleton, Wisconsin, is housed in an historic former Masonic Temple.

History Museum at the Castle, 330 East College Avenue, Appleton, Wisconsin, is housed in an historic former Masonic Temple.

At my first reporting job out of college, I wrote my stories on a Royal manual typewriter. Like Ferber, I don't write my stories on paper.

At my first reporting job out of college, I wrote my stories on a Royal manual typewriter. In this quote from Ferber, today I’d replace “computer” with “typewriter” when referencing my writing.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post about a Wisconsin food exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle. And check back for more posts from Wisconsin, coming soon.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memories of the June 13, 1968, Tracy tornado: “Pain, anguish and blood…” June 12, 2013

HE DOESN’T RECALL the details like it was yesterday.

Yesterday, after all, was 45 years ago.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, then 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town on the evening of June 13, 1968. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. Copyrighted photo courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Eric Lantz.

But for Mankato resident Steve Ulmen, certain memories of the aftermath of the deadly Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968, stick with him.

He was only 22 then, a college student and a senior member of the Mankato Civil Air Patrol squadron dispatched on a search and rescue mission to Tracy 90 miles away in southwestern Minnesota. They were the first responders, handling crisis management until other local and state officials arrived.

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.

Ulmen remembers entering Tracy, feeling overcome by the sheer devastation. The F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, killed nine and injured 125. Destruction was massive.

“It looked like we were driving into a dump site, or a burned out slum, or what I would imagine a bombed out city would have looked like after World War II,” Ulmen recalls.

With experience as a hospital orderly, he was assigned to the emergency room at the Tracy hospital—removing victims from ambulances and placing them on gurneys and moving others around.

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

“There were victims coming in and lying on stretchers even in the hallways, as it was a small hospital,” Ulmen remembers. “Some were suffering from fractures, some from cuts and scratches. All were in one degree of shock or another and needed assistance and someone to talk to them and try and calm them down.

“There was pain, anguish, and blood, that I remember. As long as casualties kept coming in, we stayed on duty.”

The CAP squadron, comprised of cadets (high school age, 18 and under) to supervising senior members, volunteered for several days in the ravaged community. Among other duties, the patrol established a communications system based out of “an old military surplus deuce and a half 4-wheel drive vehicle” equipped with “radios of every description.”

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Ulmen remembers the satisfaction he felt in helping those in distress.

Among his memories, Ulmen recalls a particular incident, one he still wonders about now 45 years later. “I was driving either my vehicle or an emergency vehicle, I forget which, and I went through an intersection. The stop sign was bent and twisted from the tornado and wasn’t pointing at the street I was on; it looked like it was pointed at another street. Nevertheless, the local cop saw me run the stop sign, pulled me over, and gave me a ticket,” Ulmen says. “Some thanks for coming all the way from Mankato and volunteering my service to a community in distress. My superiors were not impressed with this either, but I ended up having to pay the ticket as I recall.

“It is funny what you remember from 45 years ago.”

FYI: The community of Tracy is marking the 45-year anniversary of the deadly tornado with special events on Thursday, June 13. Click here to learn more in a post published here several days ago.

To learn more about Steve Ulmen, who served with the CAP for 17 years until he was about 27, click here. Ulmen, who is retired after 34 years of working in the corrections field, is also a published writer. He’s written a western screenplay, later rewritten and published as his first western novel, Toby Ryker. He then published a sequel, Deadwood Days. His most recent works include a book of historical fiction, Blood on the Prairie—A Novel of the Sioux Uprising (actually the first book in the Toby Ryker trilogy), and Bad Moon Arising, a fictional story based on his experiences as the first probation officer in LeSueur County beginning in 1969.

Ulmen and his wife of 42 years, Ida Mae, live in Mankato, his hometown.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Northfield writer Scott Carpenter masters the craft of short stories in This Jealous Earth March 1, 2013

Intrigued by this cover image like me? Learn why  it was selected and placed upside down at the end of my review.

Intrigued by this cover image? Learn why it was selected and placed upside down at the end of my review.

I’VE STRUGGLED, since reading This Jealous Earth, to pinpoint a word which best describes my reaction to a collection of 16 short stories by Northfield (MN.) author Scott Dominic Carpenter. And that should be considered a compliment.

Carpenter’s stories about relationships and aging, choices and regrets, and more, hold an element of mystery, a deeper meaning which reveals itself as the plots progress, until the ending and the ah-ha moment evoked.

For example, in the first paragraphs of “The Tender Knife,” I expect a husband to kill his wife, not his koi. He didn’t, but he did. Now if that makes no sense, that is precisely my point. Carpenter possesses that unique ability to mess with your mind/throw you for a loop, cliché phrases that totally apply to a writing style that is anything but cliché.

He takes aspects of everyday life—vacations, marital and sibling discord, the death of a parent, aging, love, fear and more—and crafts stories to which his readers can relate. Aging Baby Boomers can surely empathize with Donna, married 30 years with three grown children and the main character in “Riddles.” She and her husband are on a long-awaited European vacation when she loses her way in an art museum. As she struggles to weave through a labyrinth of art she cannot understand, Donna understands she’s waited too long for this trip.

Carpenter writes, in Donna’s voice:

To think that she had begged for this trip! What in God’s name had she been thinking? What was the point? And what on earth were you to do after the scales have tipped in your life, after the children have gone, and all you have left to do is wait?

His stories mostly center on choices—to shoplift or not, to keep or to toss, to reconcile or give up, to attempt to save or to let go, to stand up for yourself or to submit, to simply accept or to challenge/change/question.

In “This Jealous Earth,” the story from which the book draws its title, a family awaits the rapture. But one, the non-believing son, Randy, will be left behind. Therein lies the conflict for his obedient younger sister, Cat. Will she choose faith or family? That dilemma, and the consequences, leave the reader hanging on every word until the clincher ending.

Likewise, in “The Visit,” the tension builds when a child goes missing on a rural acreage with a pond. I’m not going to reveal the ending, but I simply must share the final sentence of that story because it’s so powerful and perhaps so true of how we often choose to cover our fears with meaningless conversation:

And with lavish servings of words, always more words, they covered over the memory of the pond, black and still.

Carpenter chooses words with care. That is obvious, especially so in “The Spirit of the Dog” where even the name of the main character, Caleb, holds significance. Because I have a son named Caleb, I know the name means “dog” (although I chose my son’s name for the biblical Caleb and certainly not the canine reference). Read this story about miners, a dog that is killed, superstition and stolen possessions and you will understand the double-meaning in that name.

I couldn’t pen a fair review of This Jealous Earth without noting that I nearly stopped reading half way through the first story, “The Tender Knife.” I struggled with details in killing of the koi. Don’t allow that to distract if you are squeamish like me. The story is most definitely worth reading. Likewise, several stories include the f-word and sexual undertones that may offend. However, these are not used lightly, but as integral parts of shaping a character and/or developing the plot.

If Carpenter’s first book of fiction is any indication of what readers can expect from him, then I’m already a fan. His next book, Theory of Remainders, is due for release in May. Here’s the promo description: A suspenseful literary novel set in the lush backgrounds of Normandy, Theory of Remainders explores the secret ties between love, trauma, and language.

Carpenter has already proven to me that he can write, and with a strong voice definitively his.

Scott Dominic Carpenter

Scott Dominic Carpenter

FYI: To learn more about Carpenter and his writing, click here to reach his website.

His upcoming appearances include public readings at  6 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at Barnes & Noble, 14880, Apple Valley, and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, at Monkey See, Monkey Read, 425 Division Street South in downtown Northfield. Besides writing, Carpenter teaches French literature and critical theory at Carleton, a liberal arts college in Northfield.

BECAUSE I WAS PARTICULARLY intrigued by the upside down placement of the field and sky image on the cover of This Jealous Earth, I posed these questions to publisher MG Press:

Could you explain the photo selection and why it was placed upside down on the cover? What message/feeling/whatever are you hoping to evoke in the reader?

Here’s the response from MG’s Robert James Russell:

The fact that the photo is upside down aligns with the themes of miscommunication and the confrontations of strangeness inherent in all of the stories in the collection. The land (or earth, as it were), gives us a sense that the disconnect and strangeness is dealing with familiar things (that is, it is not a paranormal strangeness, or anything truly otherworldly).

It’s meant to be disorienting, but not jarring, and demonstrate how a simple choice or change of perspective can completely alter how something is viewed. These types of choices are the ones the characters in This Jealous Earth face in all of the stories, ones that will permanently alter how they view their lives.

On a more aesthetic level, we chose this image specifically because, quite simply, it was gorgeous and we felt the contrasting tones would work well to achieve our goal.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Images courtesy of Scott Dominic Carpenter and MG Press
The book cover design is by Sarah E Melville, Sleeping Basilisk Graphic Design.
Author photo is by Paul Carpenter.