Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

And the winner is… October 3, 2020

Graphic from Minnesota Library Association

POWERFUL AND EMPOWERING.

Those two words describe the winner of the first-ever Minnesota Author Project: Communities Create Award announced Thursday during the Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference.

Justice Makes a Difference—The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire by Artika Tyner and Jacklyn M. Milton won the award. And it’s a well-deserved honor bestowed on the 16-page book themed on making a difference in this world. Illustrators Jeremy Norton and Janos Orban also deserve credit for exceptional art.

The book tells the story of Justice and her grandmother, who teaches her granddaughter about her value. “…don’t let someone tell you that you’re too young to make a difference.” And then she goes on to cite numerous individuals who have made a difference, like Ida B. Wells, a journalist who advanced racial equality through her writing.

“Words are powerful,” Grandma tells Justice. “They can be used in powerful ways to do good or to do harm.”

And so the storyline goes with the authors weaving historical figures into the heart of their message—that we each hold within us the power to effect change, to help others, to make a difference. Individuals like Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to run for U.S. President, or attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, who worked to end segregation in schools. Or Justice.

This book is as fitting today as 60-plus years ago, which says something. We still need to hear the message that what we say and do, or what we don’t say or don’t do, matters.

I’d encourage you to read this award-winning book penned by Tyner, an educator, civil rights attorney and founder of Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, and Milton, an educator and community advocate. Proceeds from the book will support educational programming at Planting People, an organization seeking to plant seeds of social change via education, training and community outreach.

By reading this book, I learned more about individuals who cared and led and worked hard for change. Brief bios on those six leaders who inspired Justice end this powerful and empowering book.

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SIX BOOKS COMPETED for the Minnesota Author Projects: Communities Create Award, including one in which my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” published. Although our collection of poetry, Legacies: Poetic Living Wills, did not win, I am honored to have been in the group of six books selected as award finalists.

Congratulations to all five finalists and to the winner, Justice Makes a Difference. Because yes, it does. And, yes she can.

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SPECIAL THANKS to Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy for submitting the collection of poems by 16 Rice County poets to this competition. He is an enthusiastic and much-appreciated poet and ambassador for poets and our poetry. I appreciate you, Rob.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finally, well into COVID-19, I go to the library August 11, 2020

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

 

I’VE PREVIOUSLY POSTED about my deep love of libraries tracing back to my childhood. As a child, I had limited access to books. My small rural Minnesota community had no library. Nor did my elementary school, which sourced books from the county library 20 miles away in Redwood Falls. On occasion, I would be among students selected to board a school bus to travel to that library and return with books temporarily borrowed for our school. I loved those opportunities to browse and choose.

 

The LFL installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe in July 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Today my hometown of Vesta still does not have a public library. County bookmobile service ended long ago with budget cuts. But, thanks to my efforts and those of locals and the generosity of Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol, a LFL sits outside the Vesta Cafe with additional materials inside. Bol gifted the mini library to my hometown in July 2012.

 

A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Fast forward eight years and these mini libraries are seemingly everywhere. And during a global pandemic, especially when public libraries closed for a period (some still with restricted hours), the LFLs proved invaluable to book lovers like me. I found a few good books to read, but still longed to step inside a public library with an abundance of reading materials. That happened three weeks ago.

 

This photograph was taken last September (pre pandemic) outside the Northfield Public Library during a cultural event there.

 

Randy and I headed up to neighboring Northfield on a recent Saturday afternoon to look for and check out items at the library. Unlike Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, the Northfield Public Library reopened months ago (May 26) for regular hours that include evenings and weekends. That makes it accessible to everyone. Masking, social distancing and other protocols are in place and required to protect patrons and staff.

 

The books and magazines I checked out from the Northfield library.

 

I arrived at the NPL with a list of books I wanted. I wasn’t sure computers would be available to access the card catalog. Because I am unfamiliar with the lay-out of the library, I needed help to find some titles and staff generously assisted. I left with a bag full of seven books and two magazines.

 

 

Since then, I’ve been happily reading my stash of Minnesota-authored books. Only one—Love Thy Neighbor, A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock—was not on my list. I spotted the book on a shelf of library staff picks, this one recommended by Sue. I read the book in a single day. One day. That’s how good this book is and how necessary to read. Especially today when headlines daily reveal instances of hatred, racism and so much more dividing our country. Insensitive, inflammatory, just plain horrible words and actions, including in southern Minnesota.

In summary, Love Thy Neighbor is the story of a medical doctor who relocates his family from a busy eastern urban setting to rural southwestern Minnesota to practice medicine as he desires, with a deeper personal connection to patients. Initially, all goes well and Dr. Virji and his family find themselves settling in, accepted, enjoying their new life in rural Minnesota. But then the November 2016 election happens and things begin to change. And that is the focus of this book—the shift in attitudes toward Muslims, how that negativity affected this small town family doctor and his family, and what he did about it.

I’d encourage you to read this enlightening book that recaps Virji’s struggles and the community talks he gave to help those in his small Minnesota community (and elsewhere) to understand his faith and the challenges he faces in a more toxic national environment.

 

 

Once I finished that book, I moved onto another environment—into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota in A Year in the Wilderness, Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters by Amy and Dave Freeman. It’s been an enjoyable escape into the remote wild, to a place I’ve only ever visited through others. The Freemans, like Dr. Virji, wrote their book with a purpose. To educate, to enlighten and to protect the BWCAW from sulfide-ore copper mining. Incredible photos enhance this detailed documentation of living for a year in the wild. I’d highly recommend this title also.

 

I especially enjoy reading books by Minnesotans and appreciate the Northfield library tagging these books with Minnesota-shaped art.

 

The remaining books in my library book stash are mysteries/mystery thrillers, my preferred genre. I quickly read Desolation Mountain by one of my favorite Minnesota authors, William Kent Krueger. Interestingly enough, that fictional story in the Cork O’Connor series also references potential mining near the BWCAW.

New-to-me author Chris Norbury’s books, Castle Danger and Straight River, also connect to the northeastern Minnesota wilderness. And southern Minnesota, where the main character returns to the family farm in Straight River. I always enjoy reading books that include familiar places. Norbury lives in Owatonna and references area communities. And those of you who grew up in this region recognize that the book titles are actually an unincorporated community in northeastern Minnesota and a river here in southern Minnesota.

I’m determined to stretch my reading beyond the seed mystery love planted decades ago through Nancy Drew books. To that end, I appreciate when library staff pull and showcase books they recommend. Like Dr. Virji’s book.

And I appreciate libraries. I look forward to the day when Faribault’s library opens again for regular hours. Currently, it’s open by appointment only, for 30-minute Browse-and-Go Visits between 10 am – 5 pm weekdays or for No-Contact Curbside Pickup. Because Randy is gone to work between those hours, he has no opportunity to get books locally. And so we will continue our trips to Northfield.

Now, you may wonder why these two communities within 20 minutes of each other and in the same county differ in library reopening. I expect it has much to do with numbers, usage and demographics as it relates to COVID-19. My county of Rice, according to information posted by Rice County Public Health on August 7, has had 1,020 lab confirmed cases* of COVID since March. That breaks down to 830 cases in Faribault. Northfield has had far fewer at 141. The balance of 49 cases are spread throughout other communities in Rice County.

I can only speculate that numbers factor into local library decisions about operations. But who knows? I am a word person, not a numbers person.

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FYI: My friend Sue Ready, a book lover and writer who lives in the Minnesota northwoods, is a good source of info about Minnesota-authored books. She reviews books on her Ever Ready blog, Click here. Sue also heads up the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack, MN., which brings together Minnesota artists and authors. This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.

* The number of COVID-19 cases in Rice County as of Monday, August 10, were 1,038.

© 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

 

Discovering gnomes, a vintage cookbook & more at a used book sale May 5, 2012

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AS I DREW OPEN the interior glass door into the Faribo West Mall, the offending odor of a hundred musty, damp basements stung my nostrils, mixing with the distinct aroma of Chinese food.

The moldy smell pulled me like an invisible string, past the Great China Buffet and the pet supply store, toward a vacant storefront, recent home to a variety store and years before that, a bookstore.

I stepped inside the former retail space into a temporary bookstore packed with thousands of books lining tables and shelves. I aimed straight for the Minnesota-authored titles while my husband veered toward the cookbooks.

Books I selected from the “Minnesota table,” albeit Prairie Perpendicular (one of my all-time favorite fiction books) is set in a small North Dakota farming community and written by a North Dakotan.

For 45 minutes we perused the selections, me picking How to Talk Minnesotan, A Visitor’s Guide by Howard Mohr, In Search of Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor and Prairie Perpendicular by Marston Moore (a North Dakota writer) from the Minnesota table.

I wasn’t searching for anything specific, only that which might interest me or others. The Minnesota language book will go to the oldest daughter’s boyfriend whom I will meet in a few weeks. He’s a California native, still living there, and likely could use a few tips about hotdish and bars. I’ll earmark page 16 for him in Lesson 3, “Eating In in Minnesota.”

If he wants to borrow Keillor’s book, I suppose I could lend it to him. But then again I don’t want to leave him with the impression that Minnesotans are, well, a bit off-kilter. I mean, if you didn’t know anything about ice fishing, what would you think of a photo of St. Joseph Rod & Gun Club members sitting on overturned buckets and playing cards while fishing on a frozen lake? Yeah, perhaps I best keep that Lake Wobegon book tucked away.

A snippet from the cover of Gnomes written by Wil Huygen and illustrated by Rien Poortvliet.

After discovering those gems, I moved on to the garden books and then the poetry and art and children’s titles. Somewhere in between I found a book about gnomes, complete with humorous stories and art that I just know my gnome-loving floral designer sister will appreciate.

But it was my husband who uncovered the find of the evening, a 1967 Minnesota Valley Cook Book. The 55-page supplement to The New Ulm Journal offers an interesting and amusing glimpse into the past in ads and recipes.

The cover of the 1967 Minnesota Valley Cook Book printed on news print. The cover photo of Mrs. Reuben Mammenga of New Ulm (sorry, no first name given) was taken by Ron Grieser. Mrs. Mammenga won the $5 prize in the pies category for her Chocolate Angel Pie.

I will share more about this 45-year-old southwestern Minnesota cookbook in an upcoming post. Just to pique your interest, did you know that (in 1967) “one of America’s largest department stores is just 11 inches high?” Can you guess which one?

Have you heard of Sauerkraut Cake and Tomato Surprise Cake?

Yes, the entertainment value in this old cookbook rates five stars. So does the Faribault chapter of the American Association of University Women’s annual book sale. Proceeds from the sale go to the AAUW Educational Foundation, local scholarships and community programs.

As I see it, everyone benefits through this book recycling process. Several months ago my 18-year-old son asked, “Mom, when’s that book sale?” He and a friend were at the sale when doors opened Thursday. He came home with a dozen science fiction (including one of his favorites, Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky) and fantasy books and a thermodynamics college textbook. Total cost: $12.

The sale continues from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday; noon – 5 p.m. Sunday; and from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. May 7-9, next to JC Penney. Hurry in for the best selection. Expect to pay @ $1 per book with newer and mint condition books priced higher.

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P.S. Please do not think all of the books at this sale smell musty. They don’t. I try to discreetly do a “sniff test” before purchasing.

HAVE YOU EVER shopped a used book sale? What gems did you find? Share your experiences in a comment on this post.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Doug Ohman preserves Minnesota in photos January 25, 2012

MANY YEARS AGO I heard Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman talk about his Churches of Minnesota book, a project in his “Minnesota Byways” series published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

He’s an impressive speaker, sharing his love for photographing those subjects which hold historical, community and personal significance for so many Minnesotans.

Thus far he’s covered Minnesota churches, barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries in his series. I don’t think I’ve missed any and I’ve read most. His books also include prose by well-known Minnesota writers like Will Weaver, Jon Hassler and Bill Holm.

If you’re at all interested in the places that are so integral to our lives, you’ll want to read Ohman’s books and, if you have the opportunity, hear him speak.

Buckham Memorial Library, built in 1929, features a Charles Connick stained glass window and Greek murals.

Thursday night, January 26, this noted photographer travels to my community of Faribault, to Buckham Memorial Library, to present “Free to All: Libraries of Minnesota” as part of the Minnesota Book Award Author Tour. His book, Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota’s State Parks, was a 2011 MNBA nominee.

I’ll be there for several reasons: I enjoy Ohman’s books. I want to learn more about his approach to photography. I’m interested in learning more about libraries in Minnesota. I appreciate libraries.

He’ll be at the Faribault library at 6 p.m. for this free event. A photo of Buckham, by the way, is included in his Libraries of Minnesota.

Southeastern Minnesota residents will have plenty of other opportunities to hear Ohman speak on his “Minnesota Byways” series as a dozen additional appearances are scheduled through-out the Southeastern Libraries Cooperating regional library system. Click here to view a complete listing of Ohman’s upcoming visits. His presentations will vary—from schoolhouses to churches to farms and more—depending on location.

I’d recommend taking in one of Ohman’s presentations. You’ll gain insights into Minnesota history and photography and more from a photographer who possesses an unbridled enthusiasm for preserving, in images, that which is part of the Minnesota landscape.

The Houston Public Library is on the cover of Ohman's book, Libraries of Minnesota. I shot this photo last summer of the library in the southeastern corner of our state.

Built in 1912, the library in Janesville is an Andrew Carnegie library on the National Register of Historic Places.

A statue of Linus greets visitors to the Dyckman Free Library in Sleepy Eye. Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoons, based his character Linus on real-life friend Linus Maurer, a Sleepy Eye native. Maurer, a cartoonist, worked with Schulz. Ohman, who managed the former Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America, includes a photo of Linus at the Sleepy Eye library in his book.

Several summers ago I photographed this 1930s Works Progress Administration log cabin in Hackensack. Sitting on the shore of Birch Lake next to a towering statue of Lucette Diana Kensack (Paul Bunyan's sweetheart), the cabin today houses the Hackensack Lending Library.

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED in reading another book about libraries, check out Carnegie Libraries of Minnesota by Kevin Clemens. The book highlights the history and architecture of Minnesota’s Carnegie libraries, primarily in photos. Click here to learn more about the book.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling