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.

#

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

 

The truths in “The Help” December 1, 2011

The large print version of The Help.

THREE MONTHS AGO I reviewed “The Help,” a movie based on the New York Times bestseller by Kathryn Stockett. (Read that review by clicking here.)

I wrote then:

In a nutshell, “The Help” tells the story of black women working as maids in upper class Southern white households during the 1960s.

It is that and more. So much more.

Yesterday I stole away 10 minutes to finish the final chapter of The Help. My opinion of the book rates as high as my opinion of the movie. Everyone ought to read this novel and see this movie.

Why?

Although a work of fiction, this book speaks the truth.

Let me show you. While reading The Help, I jotted three page numbers onto a scrap of paper, noting passages that especially struck me.

In chapter 17, from the perspective of Minny, a “colored” maid, are these thoughts:

But truth is, I don’t’ care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.

Consider those words. Do attitudes of “stealing the silver” still linger today?

Near the end of the book, in chapter 34, I came across this line:

Please, Minny, I think. Please, take this chance to get out.

Aibileen wishes this as she speaks on the phone with her friend Minny, who has hunkered down in a gas station after fleeing her abusive husband. Minny finally finds the courage to leave Leroy.

Personal courage, in my summation, is a reoccurring theme in The Help—courage to speak up, courage to be true to yourself, courage to escape abuse.

I would like to see copies of The Help placed in every women’s shelter, given to every victim of domestic abuse, handed to every woman trying to muster the courage to flee an abusive relationship. Stockett’s writing on the topic is that powerful, that motivating, that moving.

Profound, strong words of encouragement for anyone who's been abused, known someone who's been or is being abused, or is currently in an abusive relationship.

Finally, a few pages later I found this passage, a favorite line from the movie and repeated in the book by Mae Mobley, the little girl in maid Aibileen’s care:

“You is kind,” she say, “you is smart. You is important.”

Aibileen ingrained that phrase in Mae Mobley, a child mostly ignored by her mother.

How often do we tell our children, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” and really, truly, mean it?

IF YOU’VE READ The Help, what nuggets did you glean from this book? What themes or passages made a lasting impression on you?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling