Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What to read, or not, during a global pandemic March 17, 2020

The sun rises east of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WITH A RECENT OVERLOAD of reading and listening to media reports on coronavirus, I need mental diversions. I continue to start each day by praying and reading devotionals. That’s mostly unchanged from pre-COVID, although the number and types of prayers are fluid. Beginning my morning this way calms and centers me. As a woman of faith, I need this reassuring, peaceful mindset that God is in control and will see us through this pandemic.

In the evenings, I settle into my recliner with a book or a magazine and hope that my tired eyes won’t cross (a vision problem fixed as a child, but not fixable again), rendering the pages unreadable. Sometimes I struggle to stay awake.

 

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love to read. For that reason I’m especially thankful I got to the library on Saturday and stocked up on reading materials. No empty shelves there. The City of Faribault closed Buckham Memorial Library on Monday to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We’ve no confirmed cases in my county. Yet. The library closing continues until the end of the month. Maybe longer. I appreciate that city leaders are being proactive in declaring a local state of emergency rather than reactive.

 

In Audrey’s reading pile.

 

At the time I visited the library, I had no idea the facility would close two days later. I’m glad I chose as many magazines and books as I did. I checked out six magazines ranging from architectural to lifestyle to food. And I have a stash of five books covering topics from farming to murders in Minnesota to mental health and more.

 

In Randy’s reading selections.

 

Now compare that to what my husband chose. Randy, not nearly as much of a reader as me, selected books about Putin, fish in Minnesota and, get this, plagues. Or more specifically, Diseases in History—Plague by Kevin Cunningham. As if we don’t have enough to think about with the current coronavirus global pandemic. Let’s toss in learning about the bubonic plague, the Black Death, the flu…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cheers to J. Ryan Stradal, now among my favorite Minnesota-raised writers January 14, 2020

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Pulling The Lager Queen of Minnesota from the Lucky Day bookshelves at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault proved my lucky day. I’m always up for discovering a new-to-me Minnesota author like J. Ryan Stradal.

Yes, I admit a partiality for Minnesota writers and/or books with a strong Minnesota bend. The Lager Queen is both, although native-born and raised Stradal now lives in Los Angeles. I’ll forgive him for moving to the West Coast because I love his bestselling book that much.

You know a book is good when you don’t want to put it down, when all you want to do is keep reading, despite life’s obligations. I finished the book in days, not a single day, only because, well, I can’t realistically devote an entire day to reading.

As the cover art and title suggest, this is a book about beer. But not just beer. The Lager Queen is also a book about strong women, generations of women in one family who overcome challenges and tragedy. Stradal creates strong characters who grow and evolve and stretch themselves.

This is a story, too, about how generations interconnect, about relationships broken and built, about decisions that ripple their impact.

This is a story, too, of place, of Minnesota. There’s a familiarity in setting, both of real places and fictionalized locations.

As a fan of craft beer, I appreciated learning more about the business through Stradal’s writing. And, yes, he tapped into the knowledge of real craft brewers in Minnesota and beyond. I almost felt like I should be drinking a Minnesota-made craft beer while reading The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

Cheers to a Minnesota-rooted author whom I hope will continue to write similar books. Because I’m a fan. Even if I prefer IPAs to lagers.

FYI: Stradal is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The struggle September 16, 2019

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Those words emblazoned across the back of her red-white-and-blue plaid shirt grabbed my attention. But what did they mean? I assumed the phrase likely referenced immigration issues given the cultural event where I spotted the statement.

But not 100 percent certain, I approached the young woman and asked. The struggle is real refers to struggles with mental health, she said. She battles depression, but is doing well right now, crediting her family for their support. We didn’t talk much. I hugged her, offered words of encouragement and thought how bold of her to publicly voice those words: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I wonder if anyone else asked her about the message she wore.

Those words seem so fitting for those who live with mental illness. Think about it for a minute or ten. Say you or a family member are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Do you struggle? Do you struggle to get up in the morning, to find a job or go to work, to engage with others? Do you struggle with stigma, with the all too common belief that you can simply snap yourself out of whatever? Do you struggle to find a mental healthcare provider? (There’s a severe shortage here in Minnesota.) Do you struggle to get the meds you need when insurance companies deny coverage? Do you struggle?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

Thankfully, that struggle is becoming more visible as attitudes change and voices rise. Support groups, such as those offered through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bring hope and help. But we can do better. We can, as friends and family and communities and churches, show more care for those affected by mental health issues. I mean, how often have you seen a fundraiser to help individuals and families dealing with financial hardships resulting from mental illnesses? Do we send get well cards to individuals who are suffering from a mental illness? Do we bring them or their supporting families hotdishes (otherwise known as casseroles in other parts of the country)? Do we surround and love and support just as we would someone with cancer, for example?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

 

 

That leads me to the book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote. A professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, she will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 17, at the Owatonna Public Library. I only learned of her book a week ago and sped-read through this detailed historic look at efforts to reform mental health hospitals in Minnesota decades ago.

 

A building on the campus of the former Minnesota Asylum for the Insane, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2013.

This is not an easy read. It’s emotionally difficult to read of patients who were abused—confined to straightjackets, subjected to lobotomies, tied to toilets, fed gruel, denied very basic human rights… But to read of the Unitarian Church activists, the politicians (notably then-Governor Luther Youngdahl), journalists, healthcare professionals and others who cared and fought for “the forgotten people” also brings hope. They effected change. Yet, some of their work was undone when new politicians took office and societal attitudes shifted. The politics referenced in Foote’s book made me realize how little things change.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

Foote’s book will be of special interest to people in my community of Faribault, once home to a state-run facility known as The Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded. In late 1946, a grand jury convened in my county of Rice to investigate alleged abuses at the Faribault school. Jurors found the misuse allegations to be unwarranted, contradicting findings of other outside investigations. Foote’s research is extensive, her book packed with details about the multi-layered challenges of reforming mental health care in Minnesota.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. As much today as yesterday.

 

FYI:

Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, an invaluable resource.

Visit the blog, Penny Wilson Writes, for an honest look at “the struggle,” including a resource list.

Read this book: Troubled Minds—Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: Food art with a literary twist March 30, 2019

The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck inspired this cookie sheet sized gingerbread man.

 

BOOKS INSPIRED FOOD ART on Saturday at the annual Buckham Memorial Library Edible Books Festival & Competition.

 

A staff entry based on The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

 

From simple

 

Another detailed family entry based on one of my favorite childhood books.

 

to extraordinarily detailed,

 

The Three Pigs inspired another entry.

 

That Three Pigs entry judged most humorous in the families category.

 

the creativity of the book-based entries always impresses me.

 

The Jungle Book inspired The People’s Choice Award.

 

A close-up of the jungle.

 

The entire The Jungle Book entry.

 

Rules call for artwork to be made only of edible materials, although the entries are meant to be viewed only, not eaten. All must represent a book or a literary theme.

 

Based on the book Prime Cut by Diane Mott Davidson.

 

 

 

Staff entries.

 

This year 14 units—most created by families and the rest by individuals and City of Faribault staff—comprised the festival.

 

 

I especially love that families work together to create their literary masterpieces. While I photographed the event, I watched participating families arrive with parents, grandparents and siblings and pose for photos.

 

One of the many awards given.

 

Based on the book The Hunger Games.

 

A Friends of the Library volunteer served book-themed cake to guests.

 

Anytime kids get excited about books and the library is, in my opinion, a win. To read and to love reading opens the doors to learning and growing your world, your education, your imagination. And your creativity.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The compelling memoir of an escapee from North Korea November 20, 2018

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SEVERAL DAYS AGO I STARTED and finished A River in Darkness—One Man’s Escape from North Korea. Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir, written in 2000 and translated in 2017, is a compelling book, the type of story you want to stay up late reading.

It was a fitting read right before Thanksgiving. Why would I say that given the content which is simultaneously revealing and absolutely heartbreaking? It is not easy to read about an oppressive government, corruption, propaganda, starvation, death, discrimination and so many other horrors.

But it is a book that needs to be read by someone like me. Someone who grew up without much but still had enough. Someone like me who is the daughter of a Korean War veteran. Someone like me who pursued a journalism degree. Someone like me who can write and speak freely. Someone like me who lives in a free country.

I needed to read Ishikawa’s statement: “The penalty for thinking was death.” To me, that proved the most powerful line in the memoir. I cannot imagine feeling that you cannot even think freely.

Upon finishing the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the freedoms I have. But I also felt an overwhelming sense of grief for those people who live under oppressive regimes. Still today. This book opened my eyes wide as political rhetoric runs rampant.

TELL ME: Have you read this memoir and, if so, how did you react?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling