Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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.

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I discover Plainview & then the curtain falls November 15, 2013

A snippet of Plainview's downtown.

A snippet of Plainview’s downtown.

ACT I:

It’s not like I live a great distance (60 miles) from Plainview, home of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center. But I’d never been to this rural town 20 miles northeast of Rochester until recently. A wrong turn on a Sunday afternoon drive led my husband and me into this Wabasha County community of some 3,300.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center.

And there we discovered the old farm implement dealership building turned arts center—complete with theater, art gallery, bookstore and writers’ retreat center.

Dean Harrington showed me copies of Green Blade, the annual literary journal produced by writers who gather here.

Dean Harrington showed me copies of Green Blade, the annual literary journal produced by writers who gather here.

We met Dean Harrington, local banker, arts center enthusiast and CEO of the Rural America Arts Partnership, who was manning the front desk during the afternoon production of Ole & Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary & Vow Renewal. I swear Harrington could have been noted Minnesota author and former Plainview resident Jon Hassler’s twin right down to his sweater vest.

As close as I got to the theater.

As close as I got to the theater.

I wished right then and there that I was seated in the theater, belly laughing at/with Ole and Lena. But it was near intermission, much too late to join the audience.

Words & Afterwords Book Store sells ne

Words & Afterwords Book Store features more than 4,000 used and selected new titles.

Instead, I settled for poking about the gallery and bookshop and snapping a few photos and thinking, how grand to have a place like this in Plainview that embraces the arts. A return trip for a more in-depth look at this community and theater is definitely needed. Maybe next time with play tickets in hand.

ACT II:

I’ve had the above ACT I in my draft posts for a few weeks. I never expected to be penning an ACT II. But in a story reported Thursday on Minnesota Public Radio (quoting the Rochester Post-Bulletin), I learned that the Jon Hassler Theater is closing at the end of 2014. I didn’t see that coming. Dean Harrington offered no hint of the theater’s tenuous situation when we spoke briefly a few weeks ago.

But apparently the audience just isn’t there to continue supporting a theater in Plainview. Plans are to keep the self-supporting bookstore, the art gallery and the writer’s retreat open.

Just two days ago I received an email from the Jon Hassler Theater inviting me to a reading and Q & A by Northfield writer Scott Dominic Carpenter, author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth. Carpenter will be the Third Wednesdays guest reader at 7 p.m. on November 20.

And now this, this news about the theater’s closing comes. Before I’ve even seen the curtain rise in the Jon Hassler Theater, I’ve seen it fall. Anytime a rural community loses local access to the arts, it’s not good.

I’m fortunate to live in a community with a strong theater presence (Paradise Community Theatre and The Merlin Players) at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. I don’t have to, and don’t want to, drive to the Cities to see great theater. Yet, I know many local residents who’ve never set foot inside the Paradise, but who regularly travel to the Cities for their arts fix. It’s this type of ambivalence and lack of local support, in my opinion, that lead to an outstate theater’s demise.

Apparently the audience numbers weren’t there in Plainview and now this small town is losing its theater.

ACT III: 

Here are a few more photos of that inviting bookstore inside the Rural America Arts Center and of downtown Plainview.

Theater books for sale.

Theater books for sale.

A cozy bookstore nook.

A cozy bookstore nook.

Loved this bookstore signage by the coffee pot up front.

Loved this bookstore signage by the coffee pot up front.

Across the street from the arts center.

Across the street from the arts center.

Meaningful mural details.

Meaningful mural details.

The back of Auto Value, across the street also from the arts center.

The back of Auto Value. If you walk up the sidewalk, cross the street and go left, you will find the arts center.

A birth announcement in the front window of a downtown business, converted to black-and-white so it's readable.

A birth announcement in the front window of a downtown business, edited to photocopy black-and-white so it’s readable.

© Copyright 2013 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

 

Stepping off a fictional cliff & landing on my feet May 8, 2013

TS 19 in which my poem, "Hit-and-Run," received honorable mention.

TS 19 in which my poem, “Hit-and-Run,” received honorable mention.

IMAGINE THE SWEET SURPRISE of learning you earned honorable mention in a writing competition.

That would be reality for me, dear readers.

I received a thick envelope from Sharon Harris of the Menahga-based Jackpine Writers’ Bloc recently announcing that two of my entries, a poem titled “The Farmer’s Song” and a short story, “The Final Chapter,” were accepted for publication in The Talking Stick 22.

Getting my work accepted into this Minnesota anthology of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry is nothing new; this marks my fourth time in the annual book. I’ve previously had poetry and creative nonfiction published here.

Neither is the award of an honorable mention novel. In 2010 I received honorable mention for my “Hit-and-Run” poem based on the real-life experience of my son being struck by a hit-and-run driver at age 12.

But this year marks my first time submitting a short story. Decades have passed since I penned fiction. I can’t recall ever entering fiction in a contest. So when I submitted “The Final Chapter,” I did so with minimal, if any, confidence.

I labored over every word, every paragraph, of my short story before finally deciding if I didn’t submit, I would never know whether I’d written a piece worthy of publication. Sometimes you just have to step off the cliff.

I would have been content simply getting my story about an 80-year-old woman losing her grip on reality accepted. (Twenty-five pieces of fiction were selected for publication.) But then, to experience that additional affirmation of honorable mention…, well, my confidence level soared.

It gets even better, dear readers. After members of the Jackpine Writers’ Bloc read all of the submissions, they forwarded their top picks to published writers in each category. St. Paul author John Reimringer, who won the 2011 Minnesota Book Award in novel and short story for his book, Vestments, chose and critiqued the top three short stories, including mine.

Rare is the opportunity to receive such personal, professional feedback. Until you read “The Final Chapter,” you will not fully understand Reimringer’s comment. But, here’s what he wrote:

I like the economical, unsentimental sketch of Clara’s life, and the way she chose third person narrative in the last few paragraphs keeps us in Clara’s pov (point of view) even as it’s clear she’s losing her grasp on reality.

OK, then, basically Reimringer likes my story, just as I enjoyed Vestments when I read, and then reviewed, his award-winning book several years ago for Minnesota Moments magazine. Little did I know then that I would connect with him several years later.

I was hopeful I could meet Reimringer at The Talking Stick book release party in late September. But that won’t happen. My eldest daughter is getting married the same weekend. And that wedding, dear readers, easily trumps honorable mention.

FYI: To learn more about The Talking Stick, which publishes for the 22nd time late this summer, click here. And click here to learn more about The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Complex & compelling define Scott Dominic Carpenter’s novel, Theory of Remainders April 1, 2013

Theory of Remainders coverA SINGLE QUESTION POPS into my mind upon finishing Theory of Remainders by Northfield, (MN.), author Scott Dominic Carpenter. How did he come up with the ideas for this creatively complex literary novel about a Boston psychiatrist who returns to France nearly 15 years after his teenage daughter’s murder?

This adept writer uses language as a primary tool in the telling of this story, taking the reader deep into a French village where Philip Adler searches for answers related to Sophie’s disappearance. Carpenter’s astuteness to the nuances of language, his use of word play and his command of several languages riddle this novel. And, yes, the word “riddle” is a deliberate word choice.

“Graves were always a presence pointing to an absence…” Carpenter writes early on. Later, he pens these memorable statements: “Things don’t ever square up. In short, the world is not tidy, by which I mean that there are no equations without remainders.”

Unlike other books centered by a mystery, Theory of Remainders challenged me to examine words, to puzzle through conversations and scenes, to rely on the thought process rather than tangible evidence. That engagement of the reader sets this novel apart.

Nothing, really, is at it seems in this can’t-put-down compelling read.

That’s a credit to an author who clearly understands the depth of the human psyche and how that affects love and relationships, guilt and regret, the past and the present.

This story goes beyond one man’s search to settle his past. It is about those he loves/loved, a place he lived, complicated relationships, animosity, secrets, personal weaknesses and so much more.

A strong sense of place, such as “villages that sat like beads on a rosary,” the intertwining of history into the plot, multifaceted characters and more meld to create the tension that weaves through this novel.

Carpenter masters impressive visuals with similes like these: “Memories nuzzled at his mind’s gate like kenneled dogs” and “The silhouette of an idea flitted like a sylph through the shadows.” Reading his writing is a literary pleasure.

I can almost visualize Carpenter, when writing Theory of Remainders, placing strategic dots upon paper and then challenging the reader to connect those dots. Once the connected dots reveal a picture, the reader is left wondering how this gifted writer developed such a multi-layered and truly exceptional novel.

For anyone who values a literary novel of substantial depth in character development, language, sense of place and reader engagement, Theory of Remainders ranks as a must-read.

FYI: Click hear to read an excerpt, hear an audio or order a copy of Theory of Remainders, releasing May 22.

If Scott Dominic Carpenter’s name rings familiar with you here, it’s because I previously reviewed his collection of short stories, This Jealous Earth. You can read that review by clicking here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The irrepressible spirit of two small Minnesota towns July 15, 2011

Entering Belview from Sacred Heart at 9 a.m. on July 2, the morning after the tornado. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

THE RESILIENCE OF RESIDENTS in two small Minnesota communities recently ravaged by storms impresses me.

The folks in Belview, a Redwood County town of 375 hit by an EF-1 tornado on July 1, and the residents of Sauk Centre, a Stearns County community of 4,221 blasted by 80 – 85 mph winds Sunday evening, won’t allow storms to squelch their summer celebrations.

This Saturday, July 16, Belview will host the town’s third “Small Town Saturday Night.”

In Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis Days, which began on Sunday, continue as planned through July 16.

I mean, honestly, would you feel like partying if you were still trying to deal with the mess after a tornado or high winds uprooted trees; downed branches; damaged homes, businesses and other buildings; and smashed vehicles in your community?

But I suppose pausing to celebrate in the midst of such devastation bolsters the spirit and allows residents time to take a break, come together, share stories and support each other.

Kim Sander, who initiated the Small Town Saturday Night, once-a-month May – August event in Belview, posted recently on the Belview Blue Jays’ Facebook page: “Come join us and celebrate our small town’s ‘back to life after the storm’…from 5 – 8 p.m. there will be a cruise-in, free popcorn, First Responder’s pork sandwiches, a special display of Arctic Cat mini-bikes, etc. This is our third Small Town Saturday Night and we appreciate being able to bounce back and be ready for ‘business as usual!’ So proud of our town and its people!”

You simply have to appreciate Sander’s upbeat attitude and enthusiasm.

I first learned about the Small Town Saturday Night from City Clerk/Treasurer Lori Ryer just days before the July 1 tornado roared through Belview. She had written an article about hot air balloons in Belview and I was gathering last-minute information prior to publication in the summer issue of Minnesota Moments magazine.

Ryer told me then about the event that brings people into town with classic cars, motorcycles, tractors and such. She mentioned the free popcorn, the vendors, the farmers’ market, food, sometime-hay rides to local vineyards (Echo Creek Vineyard and Grandview Valley Winery) and added, “Bring your lawn chair.” Ryer is among Belview’s most enthusiastic boosters.

I’m sidetracking briefly here to say that I like this whole concept of a Small Town Saturday Night, tapping into the past when farmers and their families would come to town on Saturday night. Heck, I remember watching movies on the side of a building in Vesta, which is just down the road to the south and west of Belview. Vesta movie night may have been on a Saturday night; I don’t recall for certain.

Belview residents seem to be doing a fine job of promoting their little town. Each year the community holds an Old SOD Day celebration. The event, which features your usual small-town activities like a kiddie parade, car shows and more, also has hot air balloon lift-offs. This year’s celebration is set for September 17.

The boyhood home of author Sinclair Lewis was closed for the day when we arrived in Sauk Centre.

UP IN SAUK CENTRE, I haven’t talked with anyone about Sinclair Lewis Days, the annual celebration of native son Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street and other noted books. But my husband and I stopped in Sauk Centre briefly while en route home from Fergus Falls to Faribault about a month ago. I’m a fan of Lewis and, although I had seen his boyhood home decades ago, I had not viewed the town beyond that. I wanted to see the real Main Street, the basis for his satirical writing about fictional Gopher Prairie.

While physically Sauk Centre’s appearance has changed since our visit, since powerful winds blew through the town on July 10, that won’t keep this community from celebrating. A Welsh Pony Show, fireworks, softball tournament, music in the park and Crazy Days are still continuing as planned, according to information posted online at the Sauk Centre Convention and Visitors Bureau.

I just have to say, Belview and Sauk Centre residents, your ability to continue in spite of challenges speaks volumes to your irrepressible spirits. Even Sinclair Lewis might be impressed.

The appropriately-named Main Street Theatre in Sauk Centre's downtown.

Just down the block from the theatre, the Sauk Hop Diner anchors the corner across from the Palmer House Hotel.

Sinclair Lewis worked as a night clerk at the historic Palmer House Hotel.

The typical small-town barber shop, in Sauk Centre, Tony's Barber Shop.

On a block packed with bars, six if I recall correctly, this one, the Next Door Bar and Lounge, stood out.

Another view of downtown Sauk Centre, shot several weeks ago.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Farm Country Thanksgiving November 24, 2010

The third book in the Farm Country series.

WHENEVER I OPEN one of Lakeville author Gordon Fredrickson’s books, I feel like I’m stepping back in time to my childhood on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm.

I’m thankful for Fredrickson, who understands the value in preserving the history of small family farms. Because he was raised on a Scott County dairy farm and farmed for awhile as an adult with his wife, Nancy, Fredrickson gets his 1950s era farm stories right.

Last night I snuggled up in the recliner with his latest children’s picture book, A Farm Country Thanksgiving. I thought it would be a fairly quick read, but I was wrong.

I didn’t whiz through this story told from the viewpoint of 10-year-old farm boy Jimmy. Rather, I savored every rhyming word by Fredrickson and every detailed illustration by Michaelin Otis.

I was the one sledding down the hill. I was the one with snow stuffed down my neck by my older brother. I was pitching silage down the silo chute, eating banana-filled Jell-O, sitting at the kids’ table on Thanksgiving…

If you grew up on a farm in the 1950s and 1960s, you absolutely must read this book and Fredrickson’s other Farm Country series stories about Halloween and Christmas. He’s also published three If I Were a Farmer books.

I guarantee that you will feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic and want to dig out the old photo albums or reminisce with your siblings.

I noticed the ear flapper caps, the buckle overshoes, the checkerboard ringed silo (just like the one on my childhood farm), the old runner sled—book illustrations that are as accurate as photographs. The only difference: My albums hold black-and-white snapshots.

Fredrickson captures the essence of family, of hard work, of rural life. He understands that these are worth preserving. But his efforts to save our rural heritage extend beyond his books. This writer travels across Minnesota, and sometimes out of state, presenting his message to school children, senior citizens and others. He dresses the part of a 1950s farmer in bib overalls, brings farm props, talks and reads from his books.

I will tell you too that Fredrickson and his wife, Nancy, are as genuine and kind-hearted and as down-to-earth good as they come. My husband and I lunched with the couple this past summer. Although we had never met before then, having corresponded only via e-mail, I felt as comfortable with the Fredricksons as if I had known them for years. They are truly my kind of without pretenses folks.

 

I snapped this image of the Fredricksons after lunching with them in August.

I must also point out to you that Fredrickson gives me a plug on the back cover of his Thanksgiving book. He has pulled a quote from a book review I wrote. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the praise I am directing toward him here. He has earned his praise by writing these books, complete with glossaries (after I suggested a glossary), that forever preserve life on the family farm.

I thank him for taking on this project with a passion rooted deep in the land.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover image courtesy of Gordon Fredrickson