Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Plainview: Jon Hassler’s “the village in the corn” June 15, 2022

A portion of the Plainview mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

LAND. PEOPLE. ARTS. COMMUNITY. Those words theme a public mural stretching across the Plainview Area Community and Youth Center in the heart of this southeastern Minnesota small town.

The mural graces a wall of the community center, across the street from the former Jon Hassler Theater. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I remember the mural from my last visit here in 2013. I appreciate this public art now as much as I did then, for art can reveal much about a place.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, now closed. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2013)

While Plainview has lost some of its “arts” character with closure of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, it will always claim title (along with Staples) as the boyhood home (s) of noted Minnesota writer Jon Hassler. He moved to Plainview with his parents at the age of 10, remaining there until shortly after his 1951 high school graduation.

Hassler’s Grand Opening is based on Plainview.

Hassler, one of Minnesota’s most-beloved authors, focused his fiction on small town life. That includes Grand Opening, a novel based on Plainview. As in real life, the main character’s parents buy a run-down grocery store in rural Minnesota.

Source: Afton Press

While I have not yet read Grand Opening, I just finished Days Like Smoke, A Minnesota Boyhood. This is Hassler’s memoir, a manuscript published by Afton Press in 2021, many years after the author’s 2008 death. Edited by friend Will Weaver, another well-known Minnesota writer, this slim volume offers insights into Plainview, into Hassler’s experiences there and how that shaped his writing. He credits his parents’ Red Owl Grocery Store as the training grounds for his writing, the place where he acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist. In that grocery store, Hassler stocked shelves, ground coffee, interacted with and observed customers, and more.

The land (farming) is integral to the economy of Plainview, which is surrounded by corn and soybean fields. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This sentence in Hassler’s memoir is so telling of the influence Plainview had on his writing: I see the villagers passing along the checkout counter like the cast of characters they eventually turned out to be in my novel about this village in the corn. I love that phrase, “village in the corn,” for it fits agriculturally-based Plainview. The community is home to food processors, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and Lakeside Foods, and celebrates Corn on the Cob Days each summer. Farming centers the local economy.

Two of the people featured on the mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

It’s the people, though, including the characters, who truly define community. And Hassler shares plenty from Plainview, where he lived across from the stockyards for awhile, tried to derail a train, played high school football for the Gophers, watched endless movies at the Gem Theater, bloodied the nose of a third grader, sat at the bedside of his dying 11-year-old friend, biked to the bluffs along the Whitewater River to camp and fish, served as an altar boy…

The mural includes a faith-based dedication to Pauline Redmond. She co-owned the North Country Anvil Magazine/Anvil Press with her husband, Jack Miller. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In his memoir, Hassler remembers St. Joachim’s Catholic Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church standing as sentinels of the soul at opposite ends of Main Street. That’s such an insightful visual. Hassler valued his Catholic upbringing and faith throughout his life. But he also admits in his memoir to the strong current of religious animosity running under the surface of daily life in the village of my youth between Catholics and Lutherans. This comes as no surprise to me, growing up in rural Minnesota with the same denominational tension.

People also define place as noted on the mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

It was that undercurrent—specifically the defeat of Hassler’s father in a school board election—which ultimately caused Hassler’s parents to leave Plainview and return to Staples. He writes: I, newly graduated from high school, loved Plainview too dearly to follow them.

The interior entrance to the Jon Hassler Theater, photographed during a 2013 visit to Plainview. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2013)

Hassler’s love for Plainview endured, long after he left to attend college, then to teach, then to write and then to retire in 1997 after 17 years as writer-in-residence at Saint John’s University. Visit Plainview today and you get a strong sense of the place that shaped this writer. While businesses and people have come and gone, at its core, this remains “the village in the corn.”

TELL ME: Have you read any of Jon Hassler’s 12 novels or his nonfiction? I’d love to hear your take on his writing and what books you recommend.

Please check back for more posts from Plainview next week. Be sure to read my previous posts on Plainview published this week.

© Copyright 2022 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


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.




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.”


“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.


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.


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.


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.


A heartwarming Christmas story & an interview with Northfield author Patrick Mader December 4, 2012

NORTHFIELD AUTHOR PATRICK MADER possesses a gift—a gift to create, along with illustrator Andrew Holmquist, award-winning children’s picture books.

His latest, a Christmas story, continues that winning tradition of excellence. Visiting the Visitors recently received a silver award in the holiday book category in the 2012 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards competition.

The cover of Patrick Mader's latest book, illustrated by Andrew Holmquist. The artist incorporated the wise men's heads into the tree branches.

The cover of Patrick Mader’s latest book, illustrated by Andrew Holmquist. See how Holmquist incorporated the wise men’s heads into the tree branches.

In his holiday tale, Mader takes the reader again into a rural setting, as he does in his first two books, Opa & Oma Together and Oma Finds a Miracle.

He’s reworked the story of the wise men visiting the Christ child into a contemporary story line of three siblings and their grandparents trekking across snow-covered fields to deliver gifts, but in this version to the wise men and the animals, not the Holy Family.

This heartwarming spin on the timeless and enduring biblical record of the wise men journeying to Bethlehem is especially memorable when told from the perspective of children. That coupled with animals as an integral part of the plot—we all know how much most kids love animals—makes this an especially appealing book.

Illustrator Andrew Holmquist, a Northfield native now living and working as an artist in Chicago.

Illustrator Andrew Holmquist, a Northfield native now living and working as an artist in Chicago.

Illustrator Holmquist’s artwork, created via pencil, charcoal, graphite washes, colored pencil and markers combined with digital coloring in the computer, sets a peaceful and inviting mood that reminds me so much of my childhood winter nights on the star-studded Minnesota prairie, warm light spilling from barn and house windows onto the snow.

Yes, this book evokes nostalgia, at least for me.

But it also evokes a sense of wonderment and thankfulness, of understanding and simplicity, of treasuring the real gift of Christmas, of reclaiming that special magic we adults felt as children.

I promise, Visiting the Visitors will hold your heart and those of the children you love.

THAT SAID, HOW DID PATRICK MADER, an elementary school teacher in Morristown (about 10 miles west of my Faribault home in southeastern Minnesota), create this story?

How does he continue to reap awards (Writer’s Digest honorable mention for Opa & Oma Together and the bronze medal for Big Brother Has Wheels from the Independent Publisher Books Awards in 2010) and the accolades of well-known Minnesota writers?

I posed those questions, and more, to Mader and here’s what he had to say:

Q: What inspires you in your writing?

A: My objective is to write books with positive messages—I refer to them as “Heartwarming Stories of the Heartland.” They are based on what I have seen, what I have heard, what I remember, and what I have felt as I witness life. Family members and friends have had some fascinating events in their lifetime and I simply try to make the stories come to life with a bit of creativity and Andrew Holmquist’s stunning artwork.

Patrick Mader with his wife, Karen, and children, Karl and Ellen, by the family's nativity set. the wood stable was crafted of wood from the barn on the childhood farm (home of his parents, George and Mary Margaret Mader) near St. Bonifacius where Mader grew up.

Patrick Mader with his wife, Karen, and children, Karl and Ellen, by the family’s nativity set. The stable was crafted of wood from the barn on Mader’s childhood farm (home of his parents, George and Mary Margaret Mader) near St. Bonifacius.

Q: What specifically inspired Visiting the Visitors?

A: When our children were very young, they would ask whether we could go to a neighbor’s very large outdoor nativity set. We would sing songs, they would hug the statues of the nativity characters, and then we would return home for hot chocolate and cookies. They were very tender and memorable moments that you don’t forget as a parent. It was stored in my memory until I felt confident that I could write and market a Christmas book.

Q: Is there a message you’re attempting to convey via this story?

A: Yes, it is that the origin of the Christmas holiday is still of interest and can have a quiet majesty to children.

Q: Two of the names you chose for the three children in this story are unusual. Can you explain the significance of the names Malik and Balta?

A: Actually, the names of all three children took a few hours to finalize. The names are Malik, Cassie, and Balta. They are multicultural children and in my research I learned the name Malik has been a popular African-American name. Cassie is the girl in the story and that is not an uncommon name. The name Balta was chosen because some ethnic groups have an a or o as a last letter. When you put the three names together, they are derivations from the supposed names of the three wise men who are characters in the book: Melchior, Casper, and Balthazar. While most children will not grasp the significance, adults who question the names will often figure it out and it can become a teachable moment.

Q: You’ve garnered three awards and also accolades from well-known Minnesota authors. How do you explain such success?

A: I am thrilled that our books have won awards. The success is due to many professional and talented people at Beaver’s Pond Press, the editors, the layout design artist, and, most significantly, the illustrator, Andrew Holmquist.

The success in obtaining endorsements from Tom Hegg, Catherine Friend, Doug Wood, and Jim Gilbert probably are more due to them being gracious and thoughtful people than it is of my writing. Combined they have probably sold over five million books, yet they are very approachable and quietly candid.

Q: Are you working on, or do you have plans for, a fourth book?

A: Yes, it worries my wife! I have begun to co-author a non-fiction book about Minnesota athletes with a former StarTribune sportswriter. I like sports and thought that some of the lesser known athletes had intriguing stories to tell. They do. It may take us two to four years to get it published because it requires lots of travel since we decided to have personal interviews with each of the athletes that will be profiled.

Meanwhile, I have drafts for two more children’s picture books: one is a story that revolves around Halloween, the other is about a young girl who mixes up sounds of words—it will be my first attempt at a book that will have lots of humor yet have a tender ending.

Q: Why do you write?

A: I have found writing enjoyable, but I really thrive on sharing our books through presentations. I like engaging an audience, providing teachable moments, and encouraging attendees to follow their own aspirations. So writing is the vehicle that allows me not only to do programs, but it also leaves its own small legacy. It has been very rewarding to read letters or listen to people say that our books have touched them. Those conversations and messages touch me and bring great joy.

FYI: To learn more about Patrick Mader and Andrew Holmquist and their books, and how to purchase them, click here to reach Mader’s website.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Visiting the Visitors for purposes of reviewing this book. Patrick also donated copies of his first three books to the Little Free Library in my hometown of Vesta.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork and photos courtesy of Patrick Mader and Andrew Holmquist.


Five things to do this weekend in the Faribault area July 19, 2012

FROM TEA TO TRACTORS and plenty of in-between interesting attractions, you’ll find lots to do this weekend in my region of southeastern Minnesota.

I shot this image at the Rice County Free Fair several years ago.

Already underway and running through Sunday is the Rice County Free Fair in Faribault. Evening grandstand shows include Enduro Auto Races on Thursday, an All-Star Pro Rodeo on Friday, a National Truck & Tractor Pull on Saturday and a Demolition Derby on Sunday. Besides the entertainment, you’ll want to stroll through the barns, the midway and the exhibit buildings, plus sample some fair food.

John Deere tractors galore lined up at the 2009 Rice County Steam & Gas Engine Show. I have never attended the Credit River Antique Tractor Club Show near New Prague.

In nearby Scott County, tractors take center stage (or rather space) at the annual Credit River Antique Tractor Club Show which runs from 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. Friday, July 20, through Sunday, July 22. To get there, take Exit 76 on Interstate 35 and go west on Scott County Road 2 for about 11 miles.

From a tractor parade to flea market, entertainment and more, this promises to be a family-friendly event in a beautiful rural setting. My friend Nancy Fredrickson of Lakeville tipped me off to the tractor show. Says Nancy: “It’s set up at Cedar Lake Farm Regional Park outside of New Prague where the tractors and vendors are scattered under big beautiful trees on hillsides that lead past the old barn and down to Cedar Lake shore.”

Nancy and her husband, Gordon W. Fredrickson, will be there, near the entrance, selling their collector series Farm Country Tales and If I Were a Farmer books. Readers, Nancy and Gordon are two of the finest, down-to-earth people you will meet. Plus, their rural-themed picture books are about as real and honest and authentic as they come. I highly-recommend these books to anyone interested in farming from years past.

Hanging out along Central Avenue during Faribault Car Cruise Night in May.

If classic cars are your thing, then take in, or participate in, the Faribault Car Cruise Night from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday in the 400 and 500 blocks of Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault. According to the group’s Facebook page, “…if you have a cool car or truck or motorcycle, bring it down.”

The Paradise Center for the Arts theater, this photo from several years ago and the set for “South Pacific.”

Also on Friday, but in the 300 block of Central Avenue, the fractured fairy tale, “Into the Woods,” opens at 7:30 p.m. at the Paradise Center for the Arts. The Faribault theater and the Northfield Arts Guild are collaborating on the musical which continues on selected weekdays and weekends through August 5.

Betsy cuts Tacy’s hair in this snippet from a mural by artist Marian Anderson in the Maud Hart Lovelace Children’s Wing at the Blue Earth County Library in Mankato.

Finally, 40 miles away in Minneapolis and Mankato, the Betsy-Tacy Society is holding its annual convention. The organization focuses on celebrating the Betsy-Tacy children’s book series written by Mankato author Maud Hart Lovelace. I love, love, love these books about three friends growing up in Deep Valley (Mankato) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I read the series to my young daughters two decades ago and we, even to this day, occasionally call my second daughter Tib, after Tib from the books.

It’s probably too late to get into the convention, but you can still join in on some of the fun by attending the free Betsy-Tacy Storytime Tea from 10:30 a.m. – noon Saturday at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore, River Hills Mall, Mankato. A Maud Hart Lovelace interpreter will read from Betsy-Tacy and photos can be taken with Betsy and Tacy. Visitors can also shop at the Betsy-Tacy Bookfair at Barnes & Noble.

The childhood home of Maud Hart Lovelace (aka Betsy), author of the Betsy-Tacy series first published in 1940.

The houses where Lovelace (Betsy in the books) and her friend Frances “Bick” Kenney (Tacy) grew up are owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society and are open to the public. They are a must-see for any fan of Lovelace’s books, although this weekend may not be the best time to tour the homes if you prefer elbow room to crowds.

There you go. Five things you can do within 40 miles of Faribault this weekend.

What are your plans?

FYI: You probably already know this, but just in case you don’t…  By clicking on the highlighted phrases/sentences within the post, you will be directed to more detailed information about the featured events.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling