Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Inspiring creativity March 24, 2022

Lost glove along the Straight River Trail, south Faribault, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

THE GLOVED STICK stuck out like a snowman’s broken appendage. There, stuck in the snow, aside the Straight River Trail in south Faribault.

Camera in hand, I paused on a recent afternoon trail walk to photograph the lost grey glove. Scenes like this intrigue me because there’s always a story. Who lost the glove? Why? Who found the glove and then decided to stick it on a stick? Would the woman who lost the glove find it?

Real life often prompts my creative writing. Several weeks ago I wrote with a fury over two days, under pressure to meet a contest deadline. In those two full days of creating, I wrote two pieces of creative nonfiction, two short stories and two poems. The Muse moved within me and I felt it.

More often than not, I tap into my life for ideas. The “write what you know” adage holds true for me.

In writing fiction, I can take a snippet of truth and craft it into a short story that rings with reality, except it’s not. A text shaped one of the pieces I crafted. The other story came from some dark place I have not yet unearthed.

The recent death of my mom resulted in a poem and a work of creative nonfiction. A sign in a barbershop window prompted the second piece of creative nonfiction.

And my second poem emerged from a previous walk along a riverside trail in Faribault. Not the same path of broken snowman appendage. But a place where fingers of snow wrote stories across asphalt.

TELL ME: If you are a creative, what inspires you in your writing/painting/creating? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Erica Staab’s latest book focuses on loss December 15, 2020

AS WE NEAR CHRISTMAS, perhaps you aren’t feeling all that merry. These past 10 months of dealing with COVID-19 proved challenging, resulting in feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation and uncertainty. Even anger.

In many ways, we’re all grieving. We’ve lost our sense of normalcy, of life as we once lived it. Some of us have lost jobs. We’re separated from family and friends. And, for too many, that separation came via death from COVID-19 and the inability to mourn in traditional ways.

The year 2020 redefined the meaning of the words “loss” and “grief” in the context of a global pandemic. Yet, the core meanings remain, as universal, yet as individual as each person experiencing them.

WRITING ROOTED IN PERSONAL LOSS

My friend Erica Staab, director of HOPE Center in Faribault, addresses loss in her latest book, The First Christmas—Finding Your Way After Loss. In this slim 32-page volume, Erica writes from the heart, as a sister who experienced the tragic death of her brother, Mitchell, in 2007. The 27-year-old died of injuries sustained in a fall after stopping to assist a motorist involved in a single-vehicle accident. Any death can be difficult, but especially when the loved one is so young, the death unexpected.

It comes as no surprise to me that Erica takes her personal loss and her life’s work of helping survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault (and their families) to craft this insightful and encouraging book. She is one of those individuals who gives selflessly and with a heart full of compassion. Her words ring with authenticity rooted in experience.

GRIEF: “A WILD MESS OF THINGS”

She calls grief “a wild mess of things that can’t be anticipated.” That seems such a spot-on assessment as we all grieve in different and unexpected ways. Erica advises us to be gentle with ourselves, to allow grief in, to listen to what our hearts need.

I found this statement particularly profound: When grief is invited in…it is then that it loses its power over you, it is then that grief offers itself to share its gifts. It is then that there is space made for joy.

I appreciate that Erica embraces and acknowledges grief in all its pain and darkness. Yet, she writes with the light of hope, of joy-filled moments returning, of strength gained. When I emailed Erica to tell her that her writing touched me and caused me to cry as I thought of losses in my life, she responded, “…that was my prayer…that people would feel heard, understood, and not alone in their grief journey or their choices.”

PERMISSION TO EXPERIENCE LOSS IN YOUR UNIQUE WAY

Her book applies to many losses, not just loss through death. Loss of a relationship. Loss of a job. Loss of financial security. Loss of health and/or safety. And therein lies its even broader appeal, especially in 2020, a year of much loss. Erica wants her readers to realize they are not alone, that no one should try to erase their pain, that they need to experience it fully and in their own way and time.

And if that means you don’t feel like putting up a Christmas tree this year or mailing holiday cards, then don’t. That was me last year. Writes Erica: You have permission to simply make it through.

Her book also offers specific ways to ease loss, culled from her experiences and those of others. That’s helpful, too.

If you’re dealing with any type of loss, I suggest you buy The First Christmas—Finding Your Way After Loss. Purchase copies, too, for family and friends. Every funeral home and church should have copies to give away. The $10 book may be purchased at The Upper East Side, 213 Central Avenue North, Faribault, or online by clicking here. You can also reach out to Erica directly. I am so appreciative of Erica, her writing, her encouragement and her unique way of addressing difficult topics.

© Copyright 2020 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Northfield writer Scott Carpenter masters the craft of short stories in This Jealous Earth March 1, 2013

Intrigued by this cover image like me? Learn why  it was selected and placed upside down at the end of my review.

Intrigued by this cover image? Learn why it was selected and placed upside down at the end of my review.

I’VE STRUGGLED, since reading This Jealous Earth, to pinpoint a word which best describes my reaction to a collection of 16 short stories by Northfield (MN.) author Scott Dominic Carpenter. And that should be considered a compliment.

Carpenter’s stories about relationships and aging, choices and regrets, and more, hold an element of mystery, a deeper meaning which reveals itself as the plots progress, until the ending and the ah-ha moment evoked.

For example, in the first paragraphs of “The Tender Knife,” I expect a husband to kill his wife, not his koi. He didn’t, but he did. Now if that makes no sense, that is precisely my point. Carpenter possesses that unique ability to mess with your mind/throw you for a loop, cliché phrases that totally apply to a writing style that is anything but cliché.

He takes aspects of everyday life—vacations, marital and sibling discord, the death of a parent, aging, love, fear and more—and crafts stories to which his readers can relate. Aging Baby Boomers can surely empathize with Donna, married 30 years with three grown children and the main character in “Riddles.” She and her husband are on a long-awaited European vacation when she loses her way in an art museum. As she struggles to weave through a labyrinth of art she cannot understand, Donna understands she’s waited too long for this trip.

Carpenter writes, in Donna’s voice:

To think that she had begged for this trip! What in God’s name had she been thinking? What was the point? And what on earth were you to do after the scales have tipped in your life, after the children have gone, and all you have left to do is wait?

His stories mostly center on choices—to shoplift or not, to keep or to toss, to reconcile or give up, to attempt to save or to let go, to stand up for yourself or to submit, to simply accept or to challenge/change/question.

In “This Jealous Earth,” the story from which the book draws its title, a family awaits the rapture. But one, the non-believing son, Randy, will be left behind. Therein lies the conflict for his obedient younger sister, Cat. Will she choose faith or family? That dilemma, and the consequences, leave the reader hanging on every word until the clincher ending.

Likewise, in “The Visit,” the tension builds when a child goes missing on a rural acreage with a pond. I’m not going to reveal the ending, but I simply must share the final sentence of that story because it’s so powerful and perhaps so true of how we often choose to cover our fears with meaningless conversation:

And with lavish servings of words, always more words, they covered over the memory of the pond, black and still.

Carpenter chooses words with care. That is obvious, especially so in “The Spirit of the Dog” where even the name of the main character, Caleb, holds significance. Because I have a son named Caleb, I know the name means “dog” (although I chose my son’s name for the biblical Caleb and certainly not the canine reference). Read this story about miners, a dog that is killed, superstition and stolen possessions and you will understand the double-meaning in that name.

I couldn’t pen a fair review of This Jealous Earth without noting that I nearly stopped reading half way through the first story, “The Tender Knife.” I struggled with details in killing of the koi. Don’t allow that to distract if you are squeamish like me. The story is most definitely worth reading. Likewise, several stories include the f-word and sexual undertones that may offend. However, these are not used lightly, but as integral parts of shaping a character and/or developing the plot.

If Carpenter’s first book of fiction is any indication of what readers can expect from him, then I’m already a fan. His next book, Theory of Remainders, is due for release in May. Here’s the promo description: A suspenseful literary novel set in the lush backgrounds of Normandy, Theory of Remainders explores the secret ties between love, trauma, and language.

Carpenter has already proven to me that he can write, and with a strong voice definitively his.

Scott Dominic Carpenter

Scott Dominic Carpenter

FYI: To learn more about Carpenter and his writing, click here to reach his website.

His upcoming appearances include public readings at  6 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at Barnes & Noble, 14880, Apple Valley, and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, at Monkey See, Monkey Read, 425 Division Street South in downtown Northfield. Besides writing, Carpenter teaches French literature and critical theory at Carleton, a liberal arts college in Northfield.

BECAUSE I WAS PARTICULARLY intrigued by the upside down placement of the field and sky image on the cover of This Jealous Earth, I posed these questions to publisher MG Press:

Could you explain the photo selection and why it was placed upside down on the cover? What message/feeling/whatever are you hoping to evoke in the reader?

Here’s the response from MG’s Robert James Russell:

The fact that the photo is upside down aligns with the themes of miscommunication and the confrontations of strangeness inherent in all of the stories in the collection. The land (or earth, as it were), gives us a sense that the disconnect and strangeness is dealing with familiar things (that is, it is not a paranormal strangeness, or anything truly otherworldly).

It’s meant to be disorienting, but not jarring, and demonstrate how a simple choice or change of perspective can completely alter how something is viewed. These types of choices are the ones the characters in This Jealous Earth face in all of the stories, ones that will permanently alter how they view their lives.

On a more aesthetic level, we chose this image specifically because, quite simply, it was gorgeous and we felt the contrasting tones would work well to achieve our goal.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Images courtesy of Scott Dominic Carpenter and MG Press
The book cover design is by Sarah E Melville, Sleeping Basilisk Graphic Design.
Author photo is by Paul Carpenter.