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

 

My award-winning water story publishes April 8, 2017

 

 

“Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective” has published in southern Minnesota based River Valley Woman’s April issue. My story won the nonfiction category in the “We Are Water” writing contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative with the support of The League of Women Voters and River Valley Woman. That honor includes a $250 prize.

I don’t have a hard copy yet, but I viewed the story online. And so can you by clicking here and advancing to page 50 of the April issue. The piece is lengthy per submission guidelines requiring 5 – 12 pages of copy.

No matter how many times I’ve been published, I still thrill in seeing my words out there for others to read and perhaps appreciate. You can find print copies of the magazine in many locations like Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm, Redwood Falls and surrounding smaller communities. Click here for a complete list.

In reading my story, you will learn of my growing up years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, the place that shaped me into the person, writer and photographer I’ve become. Farm life as I remember it from the 1960s – 1970s no longer exists. So this story, while written for a competition, was also written for me and my family. There’s an importance in reclaiming memories through written words, in telling the stories that define a place, in sharing my roots with you, my readers.

FYI: Click here to read my first blog post about winning this writing competition.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Recommended Minnesota reads December 5, 2016

THIS TIME OF YEAR, when daylight fades too early into evening darkness, when I want nothing more than to stay indoors cozied against the Minnesota cold, I find myself gathering books. Stashing, stacking, sequestering them in my home.

And then I read, snugged into a corner of the reclining sofa that no longer reclines (unless the husband yanks on the redneck handle he’s improvised to replace the broken pull). I tuck into a fleece throw in hues that linger autumn.

Then I read. Of mystery in prose and poetry. Of fictional places. Of memories. Words wrapping stories around me. Writers writing so I can read. Of their experiences. Of their imaginations. Of their struggles and joys and moments.

Often I choose to read local, a subconscious decision tracing to my years writing book reviews for a now-defunct Minnesota magazine. But I am also drawn to Minnesota writers because of the connection I have to them. We are, or were, of this place, of these people.

In honor of Minnesota reads, I direct you to these books:

 

under-minnesota-skies

 

Under Minnesota Skies: John and Dorothy Hondl Family History and Farm Memories, penned by sisters Bernadette Hondl Thomasy and Colleen Hondl Gengler, is promoted as a family memoir of farm life in the 1940s-1960s that reflects on Czech and German heritage. The farm referenced in the book sits near Owatonna and has been in the Hondl family since 1881.

I can relate to much of the book’s content. The hard work and joys of farm life. Making hay. Filling silo. Tending livestock. This memoir, too, prompts long-forgotten memories of licking Gold Bond Stamps, of the South St. Paul Stockyard, of listening to WCCO 8-3-0, of driving tractor, of yearning for books.

Turning the pages of Under Minnesota Skies is like flipping the pages of a photo album detailing rural life. Except in words. Email the authors at kbthomasy at aol.com or dcgeng at frontiernet.net to purchase an autographed copy. Or buy the book at Little Professor Book Center in Owatonna or online at amazon.

 

ts-book-cover-2016

 

Voices: Past & Present, The Talking Stick Volume 25, is an eclectic collection of writing by Minnesota authors, or those with a strong Minnesota tie. Published by the northern Minnesota Jackpine Writers’ Bloc, this anthology includes 139 poems, 26 pieces of creative nonfiction and 20 works of fiction from 118 writers. So a good sampling of Minnesota talent.

Getting published in this book is a competitive process. Two of my poems, “Confessions in a Grocery Store Parking Lot” and “Prairie Garden Memories” are among the works printed in this 25th anniversary edition. Order on amazon.

 

farm-country-christmas

 

Finally, anyone interested in rural life, should read the books penned by prolific husband and wife team Gordon and Nancy Fredrickson of Lakeville. The pair offer children’s picture books in their “A Farm Country” and “If I Were a Farmer” series. They have also written American Farm Heritage and poetry volumes for adults.

The Fredricksons’ books truly are a tribute to the rural way of life. These books can be purchased on the authors’ website, via amazon or at these Minnesota locations: Secret Attic in Northfield; The Old Hotel, New Market; and Bongards Cheese Shop, Bongards.

TELL ME: What local books have you read? What local books are you purchasing as Christmas gifts?

© Copyright 2016 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

 

The disturbing truths revealed in “Why I Left the Amish” December 13, 2011

ANY ILLUSION I’VE HELD of the Amish living Utopian existences has been shattered into a million shards after reading Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir.

Written by Saloma Miller Furlong, a woman raised in an Amish community in Ohio, this rates as one of the most disturbing books I’ve read given my preconceived notions about an idyllic Amish world.

Certainly, all Amish should not be pigeonholed by this single book.

Yet, the truths shared by Furlong cannot be ignored. The Amish, like none of us, live pastoral, simple, uncomplicated lives.

In Furlong’s situation, she lived a living hell. I can think of no other way to describe the horrific stories of abuse within her family shared in her memoir.

As I read her book, I began to understand how living within the confines of rigid rules and beliefs within a closed community can allow such abuse to continue without intervention.

According to Furlong:

Individuality is squelched in the name of “community.”

Women/girls are to be subservient to men/boys.

Obedience is demanded.

Rules rule.

Humbleness of spirit prevails and not always in a positive way.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am not condemning the Amish or their chosen beliefs or lifestyle. But I have, through Furlong’s memoir, come to understand how ideologies can keep the issues of abuse hidden and ignored deep within the community.

In Furlong’s case, she writes of the shame heaped upon her family by the Amish community aware of dysfunction within her family. Her father was mentally ill, her mother unwilling to protect her daughters, her brother abusive.

Her words hurt your heart. Simple as that.

Furlong writes:

“Our fear of Datt’s violence kept us trapped so that we could not even imagine freedom.”

Eventually that fear of violence also gave Furlong the courage to plan her escape and flee in 1977 at the age of 20.

But can you imagine how difficult that decision must have been, knowing this:

“It is a belief system that a child inherits, in which one believes one is damned if one leaves the Amish.”

FURLONG IS CURRENTLY co-writing a sequel, When We Were Young and She Was Amish, with her husband, David. After that initial escape, where Why I Left the Amish ends, Furlong was tracked by her family and the bishop and returned to her Amish community. Later she would flee for a second, and final, time.

Why I Left the Amish was published in 2011 by Michigan State University Press.

This is a must-read book, even if you’re not interested in the Amish. Furlong’s memoir addresses abuse and we can all learn from it, no matter our beliefs.

© Review text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling