Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Heartache. Hope. Help. October 19, 2022

Sunrise on Horseshoe Lake in the central Minnesota lakes region. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I’M FEELING A BIT INTROSPECTIVE these days. Perhaps it’s the season. Perhaps it’s the state of the world. Perhaps it’s the challenges faced by people I love, people in my circle. I can’t pinpoint a specific reason for feeling this way, only a recognition that my thoughts seem more reflective.

(Book cover credit: Milkweed Editions)

My reading follows that thread. I just finished Graceland, at Last—Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South by Margaret Renkl. A friend recommended this award-winning book published by Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions. She knew I would appreciate the essays therein which cover topics ranging from politics to social justice to the environment to family, community and more. So much resonated with me, inspired me, focused my thoughts. To read about these issues from a Southern perspective enlightened me.

Yes, this book includes political viewpoints that could anger some readers. Not me. Equally as important, Renkl also writes on everyday topics like the optimism of youth. I especially appreciated her chapter, “These Kids Are Done Waiting for Change.” In that essay on youth activists, she concludes: They are young enough to imagine a better future, to have faith in their own power to change the world for good.

Sam Temple, 21, is running for county commissioner in Rice County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

That quote fits a young candidate running for Third District county commissioner in my county of Rice. Last week I attended an American Association of University Women-sponsored debate between the two candidates, one 21, the other 67. It’s refreshing to see a young person running for public office, someone who cares deeply about his community, about issues, about history, about humanity. He is well-informed, experienced in public service, thoughtful, a good listener, invested, and brings a new, young voice into the public realm. I felt hopeful as I listened to the two candidates answer written questions submitted by the audience. There was no mud-slinging, no awfulness, but rather honest answers from two men who seem decent, kind, respectful and genuine. Those attributes are important as I consider anyone running for public office. Candidates may disagree, and these two do on some issues, but that didn’t give way to personal or political attacks.

Among Faribault’s newest apartment complexes, Straight River Apartments. Many new apartment buildings have been built in the past year with more under construction. Yet, this is not enough to meet demand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

Renkl, in Graceland, writes on pertinent topics of concern to many of us, including those seeking election to public office. In “Demolition Blues,” an essay on housing changes in her neighborhood, she shares how housing has become unaffordable for many who work in the Nashville metro. The same can be said for my southern Minnesota community, where high rental rates and housing prices leave lower income and working class people without affordable housing. That’s linked to a severe shortage of rentals and single family homes.

It would be easy to feel discouraged by real-life issues that flow into our days whether via a book, an election, personal experiences, media… But then I think of those young activists, the young candidate running for office in my county, and I feel hope for the future.

Among the many sympathy cards I received after my mom died. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2022)

I feel hope, also, within. We each possess the capacity to “do something.” That needn’t be complicated as Renkl writes in her essay, “The Gift of Shared Grief.” She reminds readers of the importance of sending handwritten condolences. I understand. My mom died in January and I treasure every single card with handwritten message received. There’s something profoundly powerful and personal about the penned word, about connecting beyond technology. It doesn’t take much effort to buy a greeting card, write a few heartfelt sentences and mail it. Yet, the art of connecting via paper is vanishing. I’d like to see more people sending paper birthday cards again…I miss getting a mailbox filled with cards.

I photographed this message along a recreational trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, WI., several years ago. To this day, it remains one of my favorite public finds and photos. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

One final essay penned by Renkl, “What It Means to Be #Nashvillestrong,” took me back to that candidate forum last Thursday. When asked to identify the most pressing issue people face locally, the younger candidate replied with “personal issues.” He’s right. No matter what we face jointly as a society (such as inflation), it is personal issues which most challenge us. Author Renkl, referencing a text from a friend, calls those—cancer, death, etc—our “private Katrina.” That in no way minimizes the death and destruction of large-scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina. But we all have something. Her friend texted: One day the sun is shining and all is intact, the next day everything is broken. And the rest of the world goes on. You’re trapped in your own crazy snow globe that’s been shaken so hard all the pieces fly loose.

And when those pieces fly loose in our circle, in our community and beyond, what do we do? We can, writes Renkl, be the hands that help our neighbors dig out.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

“I Carry Your Heart,” a book review September 28, 2022

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Photo source: Goodreads

OF ALL THE BOOKS I could have pulled from the “new fiction” section at Buckham Memorial Library, I chose, among others, one by a Minnesotan. But not until I was several chapters into the book did I flip to the back pages for information about the author, Barbara A. Luker.

I was delighted to learn that Luker hails from St. Peter, a college town in the Minnesota River Valley some 40 miles west of Faribault. To discover another Minnesota writer always pleases me. Luker works full-time for the City of St. Peter and is fairly new to writing books.

It was the title and the simple cover art—a small cut-out heart-shaped cookie next to a larger one—that first drew my eye to I Carry Your Heart. I bake similar plain heart-shaped cookies from my mom’s Cream Cheese Roll-out Cookies recipe each Valentine’s Day. Yes, cover art and titles matter to me given all the books out there. And this art connected to me personally.

Then I turned to the back cover for the story summary. The plot sounded interesting enough to add the book to those already stashed inside my cloth Boomerang bag reserved for library check-outs. I Carry Your Heart, a title taken from e.e. cummings’ poem of the same name, is, as you might guess, a love story. And, yes, there’s romance, a genre I don’t typically read and which made me blush.

This book is truly a tender, multi-layered love story. Not only of romantic love, but also of family love and community love and the sacrifices sometimes made for love.

This is a generational story that takes the reader back in time to reveal secrets kept by Abigail Lillian Peterson Ward. When she dies unexpectedly, her granddaughter, whom Abigail appointed to sort through her belongings, uncovers another side, another truth about her Nan.

The story felt somewhat predictable to me. Yet there were enough twists to surprise me at times and certainly to hold my interest to the end.

I appreciate also the Minnesota influence in the writing. The author shows her roots, for example, in the fictional town described as like a Norman Rockwell painting by one character. In my mind I pictured Luker’s hometown of St. Peter. I could also envision the church ladies serving a luncheon after Abigail’s funeral and the turkey commercials served in her restaurant. Both are, oh, so Minnesotan (although I’m more familiar with a beef commercial). Details like that add authenticity.

All in all, I Carry Your Heart proved a good read, even if in a genre I don’t typically choose.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inspired by Maria Shriver’s reflective book, “I’ve Been Thinking…” August 5, 2022

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Published in 2018, a bestselling book I found at my local library. (Cover source: Amazon)

BE STILL. Two words. Two words that, at their core, seem so simple to follow. Yet, in the busyness and chaos and struggles of life, they often prove difficult to remember, then practice.

What does it mean to “be still”?

New York Times bestselling author, journalist, mother and celebrity Maria Shriver addresses the topic in “A Time to Rest,” a chapter in her book, I’ve Been Thinking…Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life. In the chapter focusing on the importance of rest and reflection, Shriver reminds us to “be still.”

Those two words are a reference to Psalm 46:10 which, several years ago, became a bit of a mantra for me thanks to my friend Steve. Steve is quiet, a man of sparse words. So when he speaks, people tend to listen, really listen. He holds a deep faith. And when he pointed me to a specific verse in a Psalm that would remind me often to “be still” and hear the voice of God, he knew exactly what I needed.

A contemplative and peaceful photo I took, and edited, in December 2017. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

This past week, Shriver’s book has based my morning time of quiet, of prayer and devotional/inspirational reading. I recommend this reflective collection of short themed chapters ending in prayer to anyone, whether a person of faith or not. I fully agree with Shriver’s advice to take time each day for quiet reflection, for thought and for a centering that calms. Be still.

Her inspirational book covers so many topics—empathy, listening, gratitude and much more—that, if we choose to practice them, will make our lives better and this world a much better place, We are, after all, all connected, Shriver writes as she calls for kindness and love to prevail. None of this is new. Yet, to read her words, from her perspective and experiences, reminds me that none of us are truly alone, unless we choose to be alone. Each of us deserves to be valued and appreciated. Heard.

An important message displayed at LARK Toys, Kellogg, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2015)

She encourages each of us to pause before we pass along something we’ve read or heard as truth. Like Shriver, I have worked in journalism and understand the necessity of verification, of truthfulness. She calls for a social kindness movement. I’ll take kindness period in a world where kindness feels more and more elusive.

This quarter-sized token, gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann, lies on my computer desk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

In the end, Shriver holds hope. And I do, too. Hope has been my focus word for many years. Hope, centered in my faith, has carried me through some especially difficult times. We’ve all had them—the struggles that stretch and challenge us. I hope you’ve never felt alone in difficulties. I haven’t.

I need to read books like I’ve Been Thinking…, to remind me of hope. To uplift and encourage and inspire me. To remember always to rest and reflect. To be still.

TELL ME: How do you work at being still? And what does “be still” mean to you?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Everybody just breathe,” a book review July 26, 2022

Photo source: Amazon

I’m so freaking tired of people thinking this virus is bullshit, and that only old or unhealthy people are being affected by it. It is so hard to listen to.

I pulled this quote from Everybody Just Breathe: A COVID Nurse Memoir of Stamina and Swear Words by Amanda Peterson, who worked for 11 months in a Minnesota metro hospital’s COVID ICU Unit beginning in March 2020. Her memoir documents her time there, in what she terms the longest shift of her life. This was primarily prior to vaccines.

Hers is a powerful book in so many ways, but mostly because Peterson takes readers into the ICU. She spares no details in patients’ deteriorating conditions, their struggles to survive, or not, how their families are affected and how she’s been impacted.

A early depiction of the coronavirus. Image source: CDC

I challenge anyone to read this book and not come away with a strong visual of how COVID wreaks havoc on the body beyond an inability to breathe. As a non-medical person, I didn’t fully understand how destructive this virus can be. I do now, thanks to Peterson’s stories from the ICU. The ravages of COVID for a critically ill patient are beyond nightmarish.

In her book, Peterson uses the fictional “Jack” as a COVID patient. Privacy laws necessitate this, but “Jack” represents all the patients she cared for during her time in a special COVID unit where an air filtration system roared and medical staff worked tirelessly to save lives while also comforting patients whose loved ones could not be with them.

Raw emotions of anger, fear, frustration and more pack the pages of this book. Often Peterson reminds herself to just breathe, like the patients she prompts to just breathe. Her two young children provide comic relief, noted in interspersed humorous quotes. She escapes into nature. Finds peace in prayer, strength through her faith. Support from her co-workers.

Yet, she reveals how she feels shunned, ignored, silenced, disrespected, even called a liar by the very people she’s trying to help. Her hurt is palpable. Yet, this ICU nurse carries on with caring.

Photographed in the window of The Rare Pair in Northfield early in the pandemic. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

She is, Peterson writes, tired of simultaneously fighting the virus and the public. A public whom she calls selfish in their unwillingness to, for example, wear face masks and/or avoid gathering in crowds. Again, this was in the beginning of the pandemic, but still applicable today as highly-transmissible variants spread, infect, hospitalize and kill. I ask you to wear a mask not out of fear but out of love, she writes. Peterson repeatedly stresses the love perspective, that we ought to think about others. Why, she asks, is love so hard? I wonder the same.

That a pandemic can bring out selfishness and ugliness instead of community and love is horrifying, Peterson writes. She notes how COVID has become politicized but that the virus doesn’t care about politics. She’s right.

I came to this book with hesitancy, not about the content, but wondering whether this would be well-written. Just pages into the memoir, I was hooked. Peterson can write. Her writing style is like a conversation, free flowing (with swear words tossed in the mix), honest, introspective, nothing held back. Her stories, insights, experiences are powerful. Emotional. At times I laughed out loud. Other times I nearly cried at the immense suffering, loss and pain.

I encourage you to read this memoir by a COVID ICU nurse from Hudson, Wisconsin, who is, undeniably, in the right profession. Peterson deserves our respect and thanks for not only the care she’s given to all the “Jacks,” but also for the telling of her experiences in this unforgettable, impactful book.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“The Seed Keeper,” an award-winning book every Minnesotan should read June 21, 2022

Cover design by Mary Austin Speaker. Cover beadwork art by Holly Young. (Credit: Publisher, Milkweed Editions)

VISUALIZE A PACKET OF SEEDS. Then open the envelope and spill a handful of seeds onto your open palm. What do you see? You likely envision seeds planted in rich black soil, covered, watered, sprouting, growing, yielding and, then, harvested. And while that visual is accurate, seeds hold more. Much more.

Photographed at Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa. The farm specializes in saving heirloom/heritage seeds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2018, used here for illustration only)

I just finished reading The Seed Keeper, Diane Wilson’s debut novel and winner of the 2022 Minnesota Book Award in the Novel & Short Story category. I’ve never felt so profoundly and deeply moved by a book rooted in history. Wilson’s writing is like a seed planted, nurtured, then yielding a harvest of insight and understanding.

Part of a public art installation at the Northfield Earth Day Celebration in April. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

Hers is the story of the Dakota people, specifically of several generations of women, The Seed Keepers. Hers is the story of a connection to the land, sky, water, seeds and of reclaiming that relationship. Hers is a story of wrongs done to indigenous people in Minnesota, of atrocities and challenges and struggles. Past and present. Hers is a story of wrongful family separation and of reuniting with family and community.

A full view of the art planted in Northfield for Earth Day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

At the core of Wilson’s novel are the seeds. The seeds, stored in a willow basket, and eventually passed through the generations. The seeds that not only provided food for their families’ survival, but held the stories of Dakota ancestors and a way of life.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on December 26, 1862. Wilson references the park, and the theme of forgiveness, in her novel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2012)

The subject of this book holds personal interest to me because of its setting in southwestern Minnesota, site of The US-Dakota War of 1862. Wilson covers that war, including the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato. As a native of Redwood County, I studied that war, even researched and wrote a term paper on the topic some 50 years ago. But I expect if I read that paper now, I would find many inaccuracies. My writing was shaped by the White (settlers’) narrative without consideration of the Dakota. I long ago realized the failings of that narrow-minded, biased perspective.

Even though I wasn’t taught the whole story, at least I was aware of The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was centered in my home region and in neighboring Brown County, where my maternal ancestors fled their rural New Ulm farm for safety in St. Peter. Many Minnesotans, I’ve discovered, are unaware of this important part of our state’s history.

The Seed Keeper, though fictional, reveals just how devastating this war was to the Dakota people in removal from their native land, in their imprisonment and in efforts by Whites to control and shape them. I found this sentence penned by the author to be particularly powerful: What the white settlers called progress was a storm of fury thundering its way across the land, and none of us were strong enough to withstand it.

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park in Mankato. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2019)

Still, strength sprouts and grows in The Seed Keeper through a riveting storyline that stretches back to Marie Blackbird in 1862 and then follows main character Rosalie Iron Wing through the decades to 2002. Even her name, Iron Wing, evokes strength and freedom. Rosalie marries a White farmer, births a son and her two worlds collide.

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. The quote represents the many broken treaties between the Dakota and the U.S. government. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013)

I was especially drawn to this statement by a Dakota elder in Wilson’s book: People don’t understand how hard it is to be Indian. I’m not talking about all the sad history. I’m talking about a way of life that demands your best every single day. Being Dakhóta means every step you take is a prayer.

Wilson writes with authenticity as a Mdewakanton descendant, enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation. She’s walked the steps of the Dakhóta.

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TELL ME: Have you read The Seed Keeper and, if so, what are your thoughts? I’d encourage everyone, Minnesotan or not, to read this award-winning novel.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of Rob Hardy, Northfield poet laureate April 20, 2022

A portion of Rob Hardy’s poem displayed at the Northfield Public Library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

ROB HARDY, poet laureate of Northfield, is the kind of laid back guy who appreciates a good craft beer. I know. Back in September 2017, I met him at Imminent Brewing, where we shared a table while enjoying a beer, listened to other beer lovers read poems about beer and then read our own beer poems. He organized that Beer Poetry Contest. Poetry at a brewery, how creative and fun is that?

In January 2019, I again found myself in the company of Hardy, and other gifted area poets, for a poetry reading at Content Bookstore in Northfield.

Promo courtesy of the Paradise Center for the Arts for a past event that included a poetry reading.

And then several months later, we gathered at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault for more public poetry reading.

Hardy is a champion of poetry. He tirelessly promotes poetry in Northfield, where poems, including his, imprint sidewalks. He organizes poetry events and publishes a poetry-focused newsletter and even has a poem permanently posted at the public library.

Rob Hardy, right, and his new poetry collection. (Photo source: Finishing Line Press)

And he just released a new collection of poetry, Shelter in Place, published by Finishing Line Press. The slim volume of 20 poems is a quick read with many of the poems therein inspired by his daily walks in the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum during the pandemic year of 2020.

The influence of the pandemic upon this poet’s life and writing is easy to see. In “Lyrical Dresses,” for example, he writes about looking at ordinary life through the wrong end of a telescope and sometimes crying for no reason. In “Today’s Headlines” the fourth line reads: Rice County has the highest rate of new cases in the country. That would be our county.

But these COVID-19 themed poems are not necessarily doom, gloom and darkness. They are an honest, reflective historical record of life during a global pandemic from the creative perspective of a wordsmith. Just as important as a news story in telling the story of this world health crisis. In “Grounded” he writes of pulling a shoe box from the closet to relive travel memories while unable to travel. While grounded.

He did, however, put his feet to the ground, immersing himself in nature through daily walks. He writes of birds and prairie and sky and river and wind…in poems inspired by his deepening connection to the natural world.

Shipwreckt Books Publishing published Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy’s previous poetry collection.

I encourage you to read Hardy’s Shelter in Place and/or attend a reading at Content Bookstore featuring Hardy and Greta Hardy-Mittell, a Carleton College student and writer. That event begins at 7 pm on Thursday, April 21. Click here for details. Rob Hardy is also the author of two other poetry collections, Domestication: Collected Poems, 1996-2016 and The Collecting Jar.

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TELL ME: Have you attended any poetry events or read/written poems in April, National Poetry Month.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In celebration of National Poetry Month: One April day April 18, 2022

Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2018)

ON THE AFTERNOON of the April morning I scanned the #811 shelves at Buckham Memorial Library for poetry books, I raked a banana from the boulevard.

“Hey, I found a rotten banana,” I hollered to Randy, who had just switched off the lawnmower as he mulched leaves.

“You didn’t eat it, did you?” he asked.

“No,” I shouted back, rolling my eyes at his humor.

“I found a dead mouse or squirrel earlier,” he shared in an apparent effort to top my discovery of a dried black banana. (We never know what we’ll find while raking in the spring.) He walked across the lawn to the curb along busy Willow Street and kicked up the dried carcass I really did not want to see.

“Mouse,” I concluded, and looked away.

Mira Frank reads the works of Minnesota poets from “County Lines” at an event in St. Peter in 2016. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2016)

That takes me back to those poetry books I checked out, including County Lines: 87 Minnesota Counties, 130 Poets. Published in 2008 by Loonfeather Press of Bemidji, this volume features poems collected from Minnesota poets and representing all 87 Minnesota counties. It was published on the 150th anniversary of our statehood.

It’s a must-read book which accurately, and poetically, reflects Minnesota. Among the poems published therein, “April” by Connie Wanek. The first four lines of her five-verse poem from St. Louis County, are so relatable. She writes:

When the snow bank dissolved

I found a comb and a muddy quarter.

I found the corpse of that missing mitten

still clutching some snow.

As someone who’s lived in Minnesota her entire life, I “get” most of the poetry published in this collection. These poets write about land and weather, experiences and observations, small town cafes and polka dancing and trains roaring down tracks and closing the cabin and picking rock and…

The plentiful large rocks pictured here at Blue Mounds State Park are likely similar to those referenced in Leo Dangel’s poem. The park in rural Luverne is about 20 miles from Jasper, which Dangel names in “Stone Visions.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2013)

I laughed aloud when I read Leo Dangel’s “Stone Visions” from Pipestone County in my native southwestern Minnesota. The topic—picking rock. For those of you who’ve never picked rocks, it’s exactly what it says. Walking through a field gathering and tossing rocks that seem to sprout every spring. Poet Dangel viewed oversized stones in a field near Jasper in a poetic way while his farmer uncle observed, “I’d hate like hell to start picking rock in those fields.”

Image source: Goodreads.

Uncovering rocks. Uncovering a dried mouse carcass. Uncovering a dried black banana. Uncovering poetry that resonates. Within the span of several hours, I found winter’s remains and a treasure of a poetry collection.

County Lines uncovers the stories of Minnesota in poetic voice from lesser-known to well-known Minnesota writers. Poets like David Bengston, Robert Bly, Philip S. Bryant, Susan Stevens Chambers, Charmaine Pappas Donovan, Angela Foster, Larry Gavin, Laura L. Hansen, Sharon Harris, Margaret Hasse, Bill Holm, John Calvin Rezmerski, Candace Simar, Joyce Sutphen and so many more.

From Willmar to Hibbing to Lac qui Parle and, oh, so many places in between, the layers of our state, our people, our stories, our history, our heritage are revealed. This April day I celebrate National Poetry Month in a Minnesota poetry book pulled from the #811 shelves at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault.

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FYI: Former Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen will read from her newest poetry books, Carrying Water to the Field and The Long Winter, at 1 pm Saturday, April 23, at the Little Falls Carnegie Library. “Making Rural Connections Through Poetry with Joyce Sutphen” focuses on the loss of small farms in Minnesota. Sutphen grew up on a Stearns County farm. Three of her poems are featured in the “Stearns County” entries in County Lines.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite book of poetry you’d like to recommend? Or, if you’ve written a book (s) of poetry, please feel free to share information here.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of “Where the Crawdads Sing” April 8, 2022

Image source: goodreads

IF I HADN’T CAUGHT the news flash in an entertainment segment on an early morning TV show recently, I doubt I would have read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. But I did. And the book proved so riveting that I didn’t want to put it down. You know the type of book, when you stay up past your bedtime to read.

Published in 2018, this New York Times fiction bestseller, releases in July as a movie. So I suppose my timing in reading this is about right. Not that I will see the film. Big screen versions, after I’ve read a book, usually disappoint. Plus, I am not a movie-goer; the last time I went to a movie (three years ago), I walked out and asked for a refund (which I got).

All that aside, that I read Where the Crawdads Sing in April, National Poetry Month, is also fitting. More on that in a bit.

First a summary: Set along the coastal marshes of North Carolina, this book tells the story of young Kya, beginning in 1952. Her family abandons her and she grows up, isolated, alone, connecting with nature. Known to locals as “Marsh Girl,” she reads poetry to gulls, boats through the marshland, immerses herself in learning and studying and documenting the surrounding natural world.

In following her story, which is much more complicated than someone living alone in a remote location, I learned a lot about an area of the US I’ve never even come close to visiting. That includes the many birds which focus Kya’s attention. It’s good for me to stretch my reading wings to a region unfamiliar to me. To learn of landscape, sea life, culture, food, peoples and more in a focused time period, primarily 1960-1970.

The book broadens to include a mystery—the death of a well-known young man from the coastal town of Barkley Cove. Even the name of that community sounds foreign to my Minnesota ears. His life intertwines with Kya’s and that’s what left me wanting to stay up late reading.

Themes of abuse, abandonment, isolation, misconceptions, meanness, prejudice, privilege and small town narrow-mindedness thread through the pages of Where the Crawdads Sing. Love, too.

Author Delia Owens also weaves poetry into pages in poems quoted. Poems by Emily Dickinson. By Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright, who taught in Minnesota at the University of Minnesota and Maclester College. By Amanda Hamilton (there’s a surprise). A fisherman named Scupper proclaims his love of poetry, declaring that poems “make ya feel something.” He’s right.

I encourage you to read this book for the story, the strong sense of place and, yes, for the poetry.

TELL ME: Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? If yes, what are your thoughts and will you see the movie?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When We Say Black Lives Matter February 8, 2022

A must-read book.

WHEN I STOPPED at Buckham Memorial Library on Saturday morning to pick up Valentine’s Day-themed books for a visit with the grandchildren, I left with a more important book. I discovered When We Say Black Lives Matter, written and illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke, among the new children’s picture books.

The award-winning Australian writer, poet and artist has crafted a story from the perspective of a Black child’s parents explaining why Black Lives Matter. It’s a powerful telling written in words kids can understand, yet with a depth that touches the adults who read this book. The illustrations in watercolor pencil and collage enhance/complement the text in ways that strengthen the message, as all book art should.

The love-filled words reflect on past and present injustices, on strength and song, on Black voices that matter. Just like Black Lives Matter.

I encourage you to read this picture book. The insights it offers are important. Especially now, as protests continue in Minnesota over yet another fatal shooting of a young Black man by police. Simultaneously, the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating the rights of George Floyd during his May 2020 arrest (and subsequent death) continues. February also marks Black History Month.

Another must-read book.

I encourage you to read a second book, which I also found at my library. I’m about a third of the way into We Are Each Other’s Harvest—Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy. It’s a collection of stories by Natalie Baszile, author of award-winning Queen Sugar (which I now must read). The book is exactly as its title states, about Black farmers, their past and present connection to the land and the challenges they face. I’m learning a lot. As someone who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota surrounded only by other White people, I need to read books like these to broaden my understanding about the challenges of being Black in America. Past and present. Because I grew up with a strong connection to the land, these stories really resonate.

It’s refreshing to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

Although I never got around to reading Clarke’s picture book to my grandchildren (we ran out of time), I will tell you that Isabelle and Isaac are growing up in a diverse neighborhood. Izzy’s kindergarten class also includes classmates of assorted skin tones and backgrounds. Not just White, Lutheran/Catholic, German/Scandinavian like her maternal grandparents. I appreciate that diversity in the lives of these little people whom I love beyond measure. When they see their classmates and/or playmates, they don’t see color. They see friends.

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TELL ME: Have you read either of these books? What similar books do you recommend I read? I’d love to hear.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling