Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Minneapolis neighborhood to prison, one inmate’s life story June 13, 2017


NOT ALL THAT FAR from my home, across the historic viaduct spanning the Straight River, past the hospital and down the road a bit, razor wire tops fences surrounding the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Faribault.

Among the men incarcerated there is Zeke Caligiuri, prisoner and author.

I recently read his book, This Is Where I Am, a memoir that takes the reader from Caligiuri’s growing up years in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of south Minneapolis to a prison cell. His urban life was marked by school truancy, drug use and dealing, crime, violence, and a lack of purpose. All this despite loving parents and a grandmother who never gave up on him, who wanted and expected so much more. He doesn’t blame them for the choices he made.

I’ve never read a book like this because, well, I’ve never read a book written by an inmate. His story is both revealing and yet not so. I kept waiting for Caligiuri to share information on the crime that landed him a 34-year prison sentence in 1999. He never did. To me, the absence of that presents a gaping hole in an otherwise revealing read. For the record, he is in prison for robbery and second-degree murder with a scheduled release in 2022.

A threading theme throughout Caligiuri’s story seems to be an innate desire to change. Yet, the pull of environment, the pull of long-time friends, the pull of drugs, the pull of darkness overwhelmed him. Depression defined that darkness. Given the recent public shift toward addressing mental health issues, this particular part of the story is especially enlightening in its in-depth details. My heart hurt for the young adult overcome by an illness that is too often not addressed by society (although that seems to be changing).

Caligiuri doesn’t write about daily prison life as much as he writes about his feelings and his struggles to maintain his sanity within the confines of a penal institution. When he throws food out of his cell and when he hides a banned something (which he fails to identify) in his cell during a lockdown, I feel no sympathy for the rebellion, defiance and anger he holds. Perhaps I should. But then my thoughts trace back to his crime.

How you view this book depends, I think, on your experiences. If you have been personally affected by violent crime either directly or indirectly through a family member or friend as I have been, you will probably react differently than a reader who has never been victimized.

I appreciate, though, this honesty in Caligiuri’s book: I looked around and everyone had a story about getting f****d by the system, or by their best friend, or the mother of their kids.

Blame, blame, blame…anyone but themselves for their incarceration. That this inmate-writer recognizes that lack of responsibility and accountability is noteworthy.

The author considers himself a much different person than the young adult who entered prison nearly two decades ago. That is evident through the telling of his story. He’s clearly proven himself as an author with a unique voice. He can write. He’s educated himself. He’s matured. In five years he’ll leave prison, trying to determine his new role in the world away from the men who have become his family and away from the place that’s been home for so long.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Set in central Minnesota, a psychological thriller draws my personal interest May 5, 2017


I BLAME IT ALL on Nancy Drew. She is the reason I read mysteries more than any genre. The series was especially popular when I was growing up.

So it’s no surprise that, after reading a review of a debut mystery written by Minnesotan Frank F. Weber, I simply had to get my hands on Murder Book. His publicist obliged.


Frank F. Weber grew up in Pierz, Minnesota.

Frank F. Weber grew up in Pierz, Minnesota.


But there’s more to this I need to read this book than its mystery classification. The author grew up in Pierz. My husband likewise is from the area and knew the Weber family. Frank’s mom was Randy’s teacher, a brother a classmate.

The book is set primarily in and around Pierz. I was curious to see how the setting would weave into the plot. We writers are often advised to “write what you know.” The author’s familiarity with rural Morrison County and its people and his knowledge as a forensic psychologist are deeply imprinted throughout this fictional story.

Murder Book held my interest from beginning to end as I tried to determine what happened to 16-year-old Mandy Baker who vanished, followed by the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl some 10 years later.

The story narration switches between the main character, Jon Frederick, key suspect in Mandy’s disappearance and now a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator; Serena Bell, Jon’s long ago love interest; and the perpetrator, Panthera. This method of storytelling offers in-depth character insights that define this book as a psychological thriller. Jon, for example, exhibits obsessive traits in his fixation on numbers and more. Panthera’s narcissism shows in his thought process and horrific crimes.

This is much more than simply a whodunit story of crimes, resolution of those crimes and a look at minds of criminals, the accused and victims. The author, raised in a Catholic family of 10 children, incorporates the region’s strong Catholicism and faith base into his book. I would expect that in a story set in Pierz.

Throughout the story, Weber also includes powerful statements that are especially credible in the context of his extensive experience as a forensic psychologist. According to his back book cover blurb, he has completed assessments for homicide, sexual assault and physical assault cases. In particular, I took note of these statements written into this work of fiction:

The perfect victim is the one who never goes to the police.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.

Narcissists…can’t stand being denied.

No family member comes out of a bad situation unscathed…

Our most powerful drive is a desire for affirmation—to be heard, understood, comforted, and soothed.

There’s one more nuance of setting that I appreciate about Weber’s book. He writes about rocks pocking the landscape of Morrison County. I have seen many a rock pile in this central Minnesota region and heard many a story about rock picking from my husband. And now I’ve heard another, this time associated with a fictional crime.

FYI: Murder Book, the title of Weber’s mystery, is defined as follows: the twenty-first century term for a cold case where a homicide is suspected.

His book, published by North Star Press of St. Cloud, releases May 9. For more information, click here.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Images and my review copy are courtesy of Krista Rolfzen Soukup at Blue Cottage Agency.


If you’ve never understood why “she stays,” then you need to read this book April 26, 2016

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IN MY IGNORANCE, I often asked the question, “Why does she stay?”

I couldn’t understand why any woman would stay in an abusive relationship. I expect many of us, if we are honest, have blamed the woman, faulted her for staying with a partner who is verbally, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually and/or physically abusive.

Why does she stay?


She Stays by Erica Staab


Erica Staab, director of the HOPE Center in Faribault, answers that question in She Stays. This self-published book is an absolute must-read for everyone. You. Your friends. Your daughter. Your niece. Your sister. Your brother. Your pastor.


Because you likely know someone who is a victim of domestic abuse. Maybe even you. And you need to know why she stays. It is only when we educate ourselves that we understand. And when we understand, we begin to make a difference.

Long before I read Erica’s recently-released book, I became educated on domestic abuse. Off the top of my head, I can list 13 women, by name, who are survivors. I don’t know the stories of each of these women. But some I do. They were in relationships with men who convinced them they had changed or whom the women believed they could change. These men professed their love. These men were initially charming, loving and attentive. Until they insidiously evolved into monsters who shoved, strangled, smothered, isolated, verbally-destroyed, brainwashed…

Margie Brown Holland and her unborn daughter, Olivia, were honored at The Clothesline Project display this summer in Owatonna. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women coordinates the project to honor victims of domestic violence. Redeemer Lutheran Church brought the project to Owatonna this past summer.

Margie Brown Holland and her unborn daughter, Olivia, were honored at The Clothesline Project display in the summer of 2015 in Owatonna. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women coordinates the project to honor victims of domestic violence. Redeemer Lutheran Church brought the project to Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

I can also personally list the names of three women who were murdered by the men who supposedly loved them: Kay, Becky and Margie. Erica dedicates She Stays to her friend Margie Brown and unborn daughter Olivia. Margie’s dad once lived across the street from me. She also dedicates her book to Julie Carroll, another victim of domestic violence. I didn’t know Julie.

Becky Kasper's portrait.

Becky Kasper of Northfield was murdered in April 2013 by her former boyfriend. She was a student at Arizona State University. This portrait was posted by her father, Dan Kasper, who spoke about domestic violence at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owatonna in January. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2016.

But I know that too many women are suffering and dying every day. Too many women are trapped in abusive relationships—whether because of fear, financial worries, even because of hope that the abuser will revert to the loving man he seemed at the beginning of the relationship. I doubt a woman ever enters a relationship thinking the man she loves will abuse her.

Reasons she stays, published on page 18. Text copyright of Erica Staab.

Reasons she stays, published on page 18. Text copyright of Erica Staab.

Erica lays out the reasons she stays in this compilation based on real stories of real women. And she writes in a way that is direct, honest and to the point. You can read this slim 42-page book in less than a half hour. It’s simplistic, state-it-like-it-is understandable.

Erica's book also focuses on reasons she leaves.

Erica’s book also focuses on reasons for leaving. Interspersed throughout this volume are Erica’s photos, primarily nature themed.

But this author and experienced advocate doesn’t end with she stays. She also writes about why she left. Therein lies another reason you must read this book. You will learn that listening, understanding and believing can make all the difference to a woman in deciding whether she stays or she leaves. You can offer hope.

On the final page of She Stays, Erica pens four powerful words: You are not alone.

A victim of domestic abuse should never feel alone. But all too often she does, because we continue to ask, “Why does she stay?”

Statistics on a The Clothesline Project t-shirt from the Minnesota Coaltition for Battered Women..

Statistics on a The Clothesline Project t-shirt from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, displayed this past summer in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

FYI: To purchase a copy of She Stays, click here. Use this discount code to get $2 off: WCPXLKQS. All proceeds from the book will benefit HOPE Center, an advocacy organization in Faribault. Copies may also be purchased directly from HOPE Center.

If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call 911 now.

Or contact a local crisis resource center for help and support.

You can find additional information through the following resources:

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women

NOTE: Men can also be victims of domestic abuse. But because the majority are women, I use that noun and the pronoun she. Just as Erica does in her book.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Threads of tenacity, loyalty & quality weave through Faribault Woolen Mill book December 7, 2015

This sign marks The Faribault Woolen Mill, which sits along the banks of the Cannon River in Faribault, Minnesota.

This sign marks The Faribault Woolen Mill, which sits along the banks of the Cannon River in Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2015.

“DID YOU GUYS HAVE a tan mitten found yesterday?” customer Molly asked in a recent entry on the Faribault Woolen Mill Facebook page. She’d shopped at a mill overstock sale the day prior and lost a mitten knit by a family member. To Molly, it wasn’t about the mitten as much as the memory and love attached to it.

A mill employee asked Molly to send a photo to aid in the search. Whether the mitten has been found, I don’t know. But I view the mill’s response as a current day example of how this 150-year-old Faribault business cares like family.

Book cover by The History Press

Book cover by The History Press

That’s a recurring theme in a just-published book, Faribault Woolen Mill—Loomed in the Land of Lakes, by my friend, Faribault author Lisa M. Bolt Simons. Lisa cites numerous cases of the mill’s loyalty to Faribault and its employees. In 1961, for example, mill owners purchased a cabin near Bemidji for use by employees, customers and others. That appreciation goes both ways. Community residents and employees have remained fiercely loyal to the woolen mill. Many employees returned to work after the mill briefly closed. Employment longevity reaches into decades, up to sixty years for one mill employee, spotlighting a strong work ethic.

Appreciative customers exist world-wide. Lisa found an August 1966 mill retail store guest book entry notation that The Beatles (yes, those Beatles) visited. That seems unlikely, though, given the Beatles only Minnesota concert, at Met Stadium, happened in August of 1965. However, during eight months in 1966, nearly 2,000 people from 45 states and nine countries signed the mill guest book.

Sandbags protect the Faribault Woolen Mill from the rising Cannon River.

Sandbags protect the historic Faribault Woolen Mill from the rising Cannon River in June 2014. The mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation in 2012 allowed the business to apply for, and receive, a $300,000 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society for mill restoration. This photo is published in black-and-white on page 96 of Lisa M. Bolt Simons’ book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

Lisa’s 126-page book, published by The History Press, is packed with information that shows extensive research on her part to tell the complete story of Minnesota’s oldest manufacturer. Her bibliography runs four pages. I must note here that Lisa references my June 12, 2012, blog post, “Historic Faribault Woolen Mill Opens Store with Artsy Vibe,” in the preface. One of my photos is also published in her book.

Perusing merchandise at the recently reopened Faribault Woolen Mill retail store.

Perusing merchandise at The Mill Store shortly after it opened in 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Typically, I do not enjoy reading history. But I finished Lisa’s book in just a few days. It was that interesting. I didn’t grow up in Faribault. So, unlike natives, I didn’t know the history of the mill which started with the Klemers, a family ownership that extended into five generations. I didn’t know about the mill’s multiple locations, about the five fires. I didn’t know how close the mill came to closing during several economic down-turns. I didn’t know why the family sold to outside investors, a move that eventually resulted in the mill’s closure in 2009.

Lisa references public court documents that offer insights into the short-term closure. She also quotes employees who dealt with bounced paychecks and unpaid health insurance premiums. Her information confirms what my neighbor, a retired mill retail store employee, told me years ago.

An historic photo from the mill, among those showcased in a mini wall of Woolen Mill history.

An historic photo from the mill, among those showcased in a mini wall of Woolen Mill history. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Through the challenges of fires, floods (in 2010 and 2014) and finances, the Faribault Woolen Mill survived with a tenacity that continues today under the ownership of Paul and Chuck Mooty and their leadership team. The cousins reopened the mill in 2011. A theme of endurance weaves throughout the book.

Crisp white cubbies, ever so perfect for showing off blankets/throws.

Crisp white cubbies, ever so perfect for showing off blankets/throws at The Mill Store. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

As it did from the beginning, the mill remains rooted in producing quality wool products, specializing in blankets that have warmed troops, hotel guests, airline passengers, newlyweds… Today you’ll find Faribault Woolen Mill products in boutiques and trendy places nation-wide, many of those notable locations listed in the book.

The mill's products are labeled as "Loomed in the Land of Lakes" by "Purveyors of Comfort and Quality." Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

The mill’s products are labeled as “Loomed in the Land of Lakes” by “Purveyors of Comfort and Quality.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Because of Lisa’s book, I now hold a deeper appreciation of the Faribault Woolen Mill, one of the last vertical woolen mills in the U.S. I understand why locals value this business hugging the banks of the Cannon River. A quote from Jean Mooty, who restarted the retail store and is the wife of co-owner Paul Mooty, says it all: “The mill gets in your blood.”

Lisa M. Bolt Simons. Photo by Jillian Raye Photography.

Lisa M. Bolt Simons. Photo by Jillian Raye Photography.

FYI: The Mill Store, 1500 Second Avenue Northwest, will host “A Book, Beer + Blankets” book tour launch from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9. Lisa will give a short presentation at 5:30 p.m. Faribault’s F-Town Brewery will offer beer tasting. And, of course, Faribault Woolen Mill products will be available for purchase.

(Note: I received a complimentary copy of Faribault Woolen Mill—Loomed in the Land of Lakes. The inclusion of my mill photo and references to me and my blog did not influence this unbiased and honest review of the book.)

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Book cover image by The History Press
Author portrait by Jillian Raye Photography


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.


In praise of Northern Prairie Culture: How Fargo of You April 16, 2014

This water tower is located in West Fargo, an area of shopping malls, restaurants, Big Box stores, hotels, etc.

This water tower is located in West Fargo, an area of shopping malls, restaurants, Big Box stores, hotels, etc. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

TWO DAYS AFTER I FINISHED reading Marc de Celle’s book, How Fargo of You, a 10-episode mini series, Fargo, debuted (yesterday) on FX television. Excellent. Timing is everything.

I receive my TV reception from a rooftop antenna, so there will be no watching Fargo for me. Rather I have to rely on synopses and reviews posted online. The series plays off the Coen brothers’ (native Minnesotans Joel and Ethan) 1996 award-winning film by the same name. (Click here to read my review of that movie.) The Coens are two of the executive producers for this new show penned by Noah Hawley and featuring Oscar winning actor Billy Bob Thornton.

The VHS cover of the movie Fargo.

The VHS cover of the movie Fargo.

You can expect dark comedy, crime, stereotypes and that noted, albeit not fully accurate, Fargo accent. About half of the Fargo series is set in fictionalized Bemidji, Minnesota. Since I haven’t seen the new series, I can’t accurately review it.

Marc de Celle's book cover

But I can talk about de Celle’s book. He’s also written a follow-up, Close Encounters of the Fargo Kind, which I’ve yet to read. This is a compilation of others’ stories rather than simply his own.

In summary, de Celle, who moved with his family in 2005 from Phoenix to Fargo, writes about his personal “How Fargo of You” experiences in his first book. That’s the tag line he’s attached to unfamiliar and unexpected positive experiences in his new home.

He’s not a Fargo native, his closest ties to the region in his Wisconsin native wife and her best friend, Melody, who lives in Fargo. That friend initially drew the family to Fargo for a visit. So de Celle views this area of the country with a perspective of someone unaccustomed to, as he defines it, Northern Prairie Culture. And, yes, that includes Minnesota.

The famous woodchipper from the movie, Fargo, is a focal point in the Visitors Center. Other film memorabilia is also on display.

The famous woodchipper from the movie Fargo is a focal point in the Fargo Visitors Center. Other film memorabilia is also on display. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Unlike the film and TV series, this writer promises: “No goofy accents. No murderers on the loose. No weird plot twists. Just real Fargo.”

And that’s exactly what you’ll read in de Celle’s first book—a compilation of all that is good about Fargo folks, and those living within several hundred miles of this North Dakota/Minnesota border town.

Shortly after the de Celle family arrives in their new community just outside of Fargo, they encounter their first Fargo moment in teenagers helping unload their belongings. And the neighbor-helping-neighbor stories and overall niceties of the region’s people just continue from there.

From the pump and then pay at the gas station, to the shared story of a Minnesota farmer assisting college students with a flat tire and the farmer’s wife then preparing a little lunch to motorist merging courtesy to homemade rhubarb pie served at a rural restaurant where a stranger picks up the tab for a cashless de Celle to Fargo residents’ efforts to save their community from the flooding Red River and more, you will read stories that warm your heart.

A scene from November in downtown Fargo.

A scene from downtown Fargo. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

This is truly a feel-good book, one which makes you thankful, for the most part, to live in this region of the U.S.

De Celle does note, though, the environmental realities in Fargo’s harsh winters, the flat landscape and the strong and endless wind. I especially laughed at his fly-clinging-to-the-windshield wind story given my son spent his first year of college at  North Dakota State University on Fargo’s particularly windy north side.

In February 2013, I received this text from my then 19-year-old: “This cheap Walmart hat stands zero chance against the Fargo wind.” He then proceeded to order a Russian military surplus fur cap online to replace the mass-manufactured stocking cap.

While at NDSU, my son worked and volunteered in the Technology Incubator as part of an Entrepreneurial Scholarship. He is walking away from two major scholarships at NDSU to attend Tufts University.

The NDSU Technology Incubator referenced in de Celle’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

After that first year, the son left NDSU and now attends college in Boston, where the climate is less challenging and his current university a better fit. While in Fargo, he worked at the NDSU Technology Incubator, which de Celle describes in his book as “the hippest looking building this side of Minneapolis.”

I’ll agree that the modern architecture looks pretty sleek situated next to open fields where the wind does, indeed, blow with determined fierceness.

A view of the 300 block on North Broadway, including signage for the Fargo Theatre, built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a venue for independent and foreign films, concerts, plays and more.

A view of the 300 block on North Broadway in downtown Fargo, including signage for the Fargo Theatre, built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theatre. The theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a venue for independent and foreign films, concerts, plays and more. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In the time shortly before my son moved to North Dakota and in the nine months thereafter, I got to know Fargo somewhat. It is the charming downtown, with its mostly old buildings, which most endears me to this community. And the people. They were, as de Celle has found, always kind and friendly.

He does expose, though, one issue—that of a workforce he terms as “the most overqualified, underpaid, competent and ethical” in the U.S. “Underpaid” jumps out at me, when really “overqualified, competent and ethical” should.

Then de Celle balances this with his summation that the majority of folks in Fargo value relationships over stuff. That apparently partially explains why people choose to live in Fargo when they could earn more money elsewhere doing the same job.

Now that’s my kind of place, my kind of people.

The landscape: flat and into forever.

The landscape: flat and into forever in the Fargo area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But I’m going to be honest here. Even though I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, which I thought to be about as flat and open sky country as exists, I found the landscape of Fargo even flatter, the wind more fierce, the environment harsher.

Every visit to Fargo, I felt unsettled. Like my son before me, I doubt I could last more than a winter in North Dakota. Rather, I live across the border nearly 300 miles to the south and east, still within Northern Prairie Culture in a state known for “Minnesota Nice.” Probably a lot, I’ve concluded, like “How Fargo of You” nice.

Disclaimer: Author Marc de Celle purchased one of my photos for usage on his website and gave me complimentary copies of his two books. That, however, did not influence my decision to write this review or the content therein.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Connecting to Rachael Hanel’s “Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” May 9, 2013

gravedigger coverPICKING UP MINNESOTA WRITER Rachael Hanel’s We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down—Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, I wonder how I can possibly relate to a book focused on death.

But I can, in many ways. I am, like Hanel, a native southern Minnesotan. That is telling. We are a people who tend to keep our emotions in check, even in grief.

Hanel’s association with death begins before age three, when her father, Paul Hager, becomes a gravedigger. Hanel grew up frequenting 20 Waseca area cemeteries under her family’s care. Their business motto, “We’ll be the last ones to let you down,” seems the perfect title for a memoir that is at times light-hearted, but mostly serious.

Imagine summers in a cemetery, flitting among gravestones or reading books while your father digs holes to receive the dead and your mom mows lawn. And imagine the day you understand that names, dates and words on tombstones reveal stories. I expect we all experience that epiphany at some point during our childhoods, realizing the numbers and letters on cold stone represent lives lived. But the daughter of the gravedigger wants more, asking her storytelling mother to share the stories of the deceased.

Hanel cites numerous examples of tragedies in the Waseca area—the September 11, 1959, deaths of seven members of the Zimmerman family whose car was struck by a train and the deaths of Busy Bee Cafe waitress Cheryl Tutttle and her young daughter—in sharing the graveyard stories which existed as a natural part of her childhood.

About two-thirds of the way into her 192-page memoir, Hanel writes:

My family went to wakes like some families went to movies.

Despite that familiarity with death, Hanel and her family find themselves reeling at the unexpected loss of her father to cancer when she is only 15. They know death, but not grief. Therein lies a major component of Hanel’s memoir in her personal struggles with grief and the fracturing of her family upon her father’s death.

This then-teen, who always leaned to the artistic—appreciating art in her childhood home, art in cemeteries, art in the rural Minnesota landscape—turns to words for solace. She seeks books that will tell her how to connect to her dead father. She tames her grief, she says, “by writing words on the page.”

Hanel also relies on her strong Catholic faith. Praying the rosary is her constancy.

Ironically, several years later, after she has married at the young age of 19, Hanel starts a job writing obituaries at the Mankato Free Press. It is the same newspaper where I worked as a news reporter, but never as an obit writer (although I did report on tragic deaths), for nearly two years, long before Hanel’s arrival. Eventually she, too, becomes a reporter there.

It is not that professional commonality, though, or Hanel’s general love of writing or her faith that cause me to feel most connected to this reporter turned author. Rather it is her understanding of small-town Minnesota. And her appreciation for the land. Hanel writes of biking near Elysian as farmers work the fields, upturning the earth for planting.

This gravedigger’s daughter writes:

I breathe in the freshly turned soil and that is all I want to breathe, night and day.

That I understand, from the perspective of a farmer’s, not a gravedigger’s, daughter.

Minnesota author Rachael Hanel. Photo by Steve Pottenger.

Minnesota author Rachael Hanel. Photo by Steve Pottenger.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling