Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Feeling especially valued as a Minnesota creative February 18, 2022

A serene rural scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County, my home county, shows the roots of my creativity in the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2013)

I’VE ALWAYS SENSED within the artistic community an unwavering support of one another. A kinship in creativity. A connection sparked by the sheer act of creating, whether by words, by music, by paintbrush or pencil or camera or hands or…

Craig Kotasek crafted these letterpress print promo posters for his current show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

And today I’m feeling especially valued by an artist I posted about just days ago—Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing in Le Sueur. I wrote about his Letterpress Print Show at The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery (Minnesota). If you haven’t viewed that story yet, click here to read my insights into his work and to see his incredible letterpress artistry showcased in my photos.

Well, Craig heard about my post, followed up with an email to me and then posted the kindest/loveliest/nicest review of my work on his website (click here). I am not only humbled by his generous words, but by his detailed gratitude for Minnesota Prairie Roots. He clearly understands me, my artistic and journalistic passions, my love for small towns and rural Minnesota, and my desire to share my discoveries.

Craig is just one example of how generous this community of creatives.

When we create, we share part of ourselves with the world. I cannot imagine not creating. That comes from a southwestern Minnesota farm girl who grew up with minimal exposure to the arts. No music lessons. No art classes. No gallery shows. No community concerts. Nothing outside the basic core of required class courses in middle and high school.

A snippet of the land my father farmed, my middle brother after him, on the rural Vesta farm where I grew up. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2013)

But what I lacked in the arts I found in the prairie landscape. In the unrelenting wind. In sunsets bold and beautiful. In snowstorms that washed all color from the earth. In wild pink roses pushing through road ditch grass. In the earthy scent of black dirt turned by a plow. I took it all in, every detail in a sparse land.

And I read. Laura Ingalls Wilder, pioneer girl from Walnut Grove only 20 miles distant. Nancy Drew with her inquisitive mind. Whatever books I could find in a town without a library.

Today I feel grateful to live blocks from a library. I feel grateful to have access to the arts. You will find me often posting about creatives on this blog. Creatives like Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing. He’s a gifted craftsman and artist specializing in letterpress printing. What a talented community of artists we have in rural Minnesota. I feel grateful to be part of that creative community.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on poet Robert Bly December 1, 2021

Books by Minnesota poet Robert Bly. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo)

AS A PUBLISHED POET, you might expect me to read a lot of poetry. I confess that I don’t. I should, because through reading and studying others who practice our crafts, we learn.

So I determined, upon hearing of the death of renowned Minnesota poet Robert Bly on November 21, that I would read more of his poetry. I’ve checked out every Bly book available at my local library: What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey and Stealing Sugar from the Castle.

Interesting titles reveal likewise interesting poems crafted by an especially gifted writer.

Robert Bly also translated poetry, here “The Voices” by Rainer Maria Rilke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

As I began to read Bly’s poems, I noticed the brevity. As any poet understands, each word in a poem must count. Bly seems especially adept at that. Poetry is perhaps the most difficult of writing genres.

I also see the influence of his upbringing on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. His roots are in Madison, near the South Dakota border. This small farming community is the self-proclaimed Lutefisk Capital of the US and home to a 25-foot-long fiberglass cod fish statue. Lutefisk is cod soaked in lye and a food of Norwegian heritage.

My copy of “The Voices,” translated by Robert Bly. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

In Bly’s poetic voice, I hear rural reflected. From land to sky. Heritage strong. Faith interwoven. Solid work ethic. Agriculture defining small towns and occupations, threading through daily life. Bly writes with an awareness of his rural-ness, with a deep sense of place. I understand that given my roots on a southwestern Minnesota farm.

Yet, Bly’s writing isn’t defined solely by place. His world expanded when he joined the Navy after high school graduation, then attended St. Olaf College in Northfield for a year before transferring to Harvard. He pursued additional degrees. He was a prolific writer. A poet. An essayist. An activist.

While watching a public television documentary on Bly last week, I learned more about his activism. During the Vietnam War. In writing about men. He authored Iron John: A Book About Men, which remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for 62 weeks. Sixty-two weeks. That’s saying something about Bly’s influence.

Robert Bly’s autograph in my first edition copy of “The Voices.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

He also translated the works of others, including Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Voices. It’s a slim volume of nine poems with a title poem. And I have a copy of that beautiful hardcover book, purchased several years back at a used book sale in Faribault. Mine is number 14 of 50 limited first edition copies published in 1977 by The Ally Press and autographed by Robert Bly. Now, upon the poet’s death, this collection holds even more significance. More value.

The final three lines in Bly’s poem, “Ravens Hiding in a Shoe,” summarize his passion for penning poetry. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

Though Bly has passed at the age of 94, his legacy as a writer will endure. He scored many awards and accolades throughout his writing career. But I sense, even with that success, it was the craft of writing, the ability to pursue his passion for the written word, which he valued the most. That, too, I understand. For to write is to breathe.

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FYI: To read another take on Bly, I direct you to gifted writer and poet Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, who blogs at One Minnesota Writer. She reflected on Bly in a post titled “Remembering Robert Bly.”

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating William Kent Krueger’s latest bestseller, This Tender Land January 24, 2020

I’VE LONG BEEN A FAN of Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series and stand-alone book, Ordinary Grace. But now I can add another title to that list. This Tender Land.

Ten days after I picked up the book from Buckham Memorial Library, where I’d been on a waiting list for months to get the 2019 release, I’d finished the novel. And I didn’t start reading it immediately as I had to first finish The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal.

In a nutshell, This Tender Land tells the story of orphaned brothers, Odie and Albert, who are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School, although they are not Native Americans. Yes, such schools really existed long ago. The school is not so much a school as a prison with cruelty and abuse defining life there.

This fictional book, set primarily in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, weaves actual history into the storyline. Much of that history focuses on the mistreatment of native peoples during and following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how that carried through to subsequent generations. I’m familiar with that history having grown up in Redwood County, at the epicenter (along with Brown County) of that war. Krueger clearly did his research and then took that information and made it personal through characters, scenes and setting.

But this is much more than a historically-based book of fiction. This is a story about family and friends, about searching and discovery, about hope and despair, about love and loss, about cruelty and kindness, about redefining rich and poor, about anger and spirituality and forgiveness and finding one’s self. This book really makes you think as the story twists and turns and all those themes emerge.

At one point, after reading a line on page 288, I cried. When was the last time you cried while reading a book? I cried at 12-year-old Odie’s observation of women who’ve suffered and yet never given up hope, who’ve forgiven… It was a powerful sentence for me personally.

When a book can move me like that, I feel a deep respect for the author, for his talent, for his writing. There’s a reason William Kent Krueger’s books are bestsellers and in demand at libraries. He writes with depth and authenticity in ways that resonate.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Attention, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans: A new must-read book by Marta McDowell September 21, 2017

 

WHEN A PACKAGE LANDED on my front doorstep some 10 days ago, I wondered about its content. I hadn’t ordered anything. But inside I found a newly-released book, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books.

Ah, yes, I had been expecting this. Sort of. But I’d forgotten about the book by bestselling author Marta McDowell that includes three of my photos. More than a year had passed since Marta and I connected.

Now I was holding the results of this New Jersey writer’s intensive research, multi-state visits and hours of writing. It’s an impressive book for the information and the art published therein on the places and plants in the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

 

Every summer, the folks of Walnut Grove produce an outdoor pageant based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Many pageant attendees arrive at the show site dressed in period attire and then climb aboard the covered wagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I have not yet read the entire book. But I am sharing this new Timber Press release now because Marta will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Avenue, in Minneapolis from 7 – 8 this evening (September 21) to present The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I expect the book to be enthusiastically received here in Minnesota and by Laura fans world-wide.

 

The southwestern Minnesota prairie, in the summer, is a place of remarkable beauty. I shot this image outside Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

I am among those fans with the added bonus of having grown up only three townships north of the Charles and Caroline Ingalls’ North Hero Township home near Walnut Grove in Redwood County, Minnesota. Long before the Little House TV show, long before I realized the popularity of Laura’s book series, I loved her writing. A teacher at Vesta Elementary School read the books aloud to me and my classmates during a post-lunch reading time. That story-time instilled in me a deep love for the written word and a deep connection to The Little House books.

 

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove in 2010.

 

With that background, you can understand my enthusiasm for Marta’s book which focuses on the landscapes and specific plants that surrounded Laura and her family. Laura writes with a strong sense of place, a skill I’ve often considered may trace to her blind sister, Mary. Laura became her sister’s “eyes.”

 

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything. I took this photo at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna during a previous traveling exhibit on Minnesota disasters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Marta writes of specific plants and places in her book, taking the reader from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Missouri and in between—wherever Laura lived. In the section on Walnut Grove, she notes the wild plums, the morning glories and the blue flags (iris) that Laura writes about in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I’ve walked that creek and creekbank, seen the Ingalls’ dug-out, wildflowers and plums. I am of this rich black soil, these plants, this land. There’s a comfortable familiarity in reading of this land the Ingalls family eventually left because of a grasshopper infestation and resulting crop failures.

 

My black-eyed susan photo is published in Marta’s book. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To be part of Marta’s book on Laura Ingalls Wilder is an honor. The vintage botanical illustrations, original artwork by Garth Williams, historic photos, maps, ads, current day photos like my three and more make this volume a work of art.

There is much to learn therein, much to appreciate. So for all of you Laura fans out there, take note. You’ll want to add The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books to your collection.

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary copy of this book and was paid for publication of my three photos.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Edna who? April 25, 2014

Edna Ferber portrait displayed at the History Museum at the Castle.

Edna Ferber portrait, photographed from a display at the History Museum at the Castle.

WHO IS EDNA FERBER?

Do you know?

I should. I’m a writer.

But I didn’t. Although now I do.

Thanks to an exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin, followed by additional online research, I now know some basic facts about this Pulitzer Prize winning author. In 1925, Ferber won a Pulitzer for her novel, So Big. Set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, the book tells the story of widowed Selina DeJong and her struggles to support herself and her son. That novel is now on my must-read list.

I think I would appreciate the writing of a woman “hailed for sensitively portraying working Americans, for calling attention to women’s roles in American history, and for writing with a journalist’s knack for precise vocabulary and vivid description,” according to info posted in the museum exhibit.

She sounds like one strong woman.

At age 17, Ferber became the first woman reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent. Seventeen. Her work as editor of her Appleton high school newspaper apparently impressed the Crescent editor.

Over a 50-year span, this prolific writer would pen a dozen novels, 11 short story collections, six major plays and two autobiographies.

Wow.

Her best known works include Show Boat, made into the celebrated musical in 1927; Cimarron, adapted into the 1931 film which won an Academy Award for Best Picture; Giant, a 1956 Hollywood movie; and that Pulitzer novel, So Big.

According to info on the History Museum at the Castle website, Ferber is known for her “wit and perspectives on growing up in a small Midwestern town.”

Now that I can really appreciate.

READERS, have any of you read Ferber’s work or seen the films inspired by her writing?

Click here to read Ferber’s biography published on the Appleton Public Library website.

This quote, showcased in the History Museum at the Castle display, rings true for me as a writer.

This quote, showcased in the History Museum at the Castle display, rings true for me as a writer, too.

History Museum at the Castle, 330 East College Avenue, Appleton, Wisconsin, is housed in an historic former Masonic Temple.

History Museum at the Castle, 330 East College Avenue, Appleton, Wisconsin, is housed in an historic former Masonic Temple.

At my first reporting job out of college, I wrote my stories on a Royal manual typewriter. Like Ferber, I don't write my stories on paper.

At my first reporting job out of college, I wrote my stories on a Royal manual typewriter. In this quote from Ferber, today I’d replace “computer” with “typewriter” when referencing my writing.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post about a Wisconsin food exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle. And check back for more posts from Wisconsin, coming soon.

© Copyright 2014 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

 

Count me in on Roadside Poetry April 26, 2011

“We’ve selected YOUR poem for our spring Roadside Poetry installment!”

For nearly a month now, I’ve kept that exciting, boldfaced news mostly to myself, sharing it with only my immediate family, my mom and a few select friends and extended family members.

But now that the billboards are up—yes, I said billboards—I no longer feel obligated to keep this a secret.

I won the spring Roadside Poetry competition and my poem now sprawls across four billboards, Burma Shave style, 50 yards apart in Fergus Falls.

That’s it, my poem, the winning poem, which is posted along North Tower Road west of Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, just down the road from Fleet Farm. Take exit 54 off I-94 on the west edge of Fergus.

Paul Carney, the project coordinator who delivered the good news to me via e-mail in early March, tells me that 100,000 vehicles drive by the billboards each month. “How’s that for readership?” he asks.

Well, mighty fine, Paul. Mighty fine.

Getting my poetry out there in this unusual, highly-public venue really is an honor for me, adding to my poems already published in two magazines and four, soon-to-be five, anthologies.

The mission of The Roadside Poetry Project “is to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the rural landscape,” according to roadsidepoetry.org. The first poem went up in September 2008 and was, interestingly enough, written by another Faribault resident, Larry Gavin, a writer and Faribault High School English teacher.

The poems, all seasonally-themed, change four times a year. Mine will be up through the third week of June when a summer poem replaces it. Yes, entries are currently being accepted for the summer competition.

About now you’re likely, maybe, wondering how I heard about this contest. I honestly cannot remember. But I do remember thinking, “I can do this.” So one night I sat down with a notebook and pencil and started jotting down phrases.

Like most writers, I strive to find the exact/precise/perfect/right words.

I scribbled and scratched and thought and wrote and crossed out and jotted and erased and counted and filled several notebook pages.

These poems do not simply pop, like that, into my head, onto paper.

To add to the complexity of this process, poets are tasked with creating poetic imagery that describes the wonderment of the season, all in four lines. But there’s more. Each line can include no more than 20 characters.

Now that character limitation, my friends, presents a challenge. Just when I thought I had nailed a phrase, I counted too many characters. Again and again, I had to restart until, finally, I had shaped and molded the poem I would submit.

“I love the language and the imagery,” project leader Paul said of my winning spring poem.

Honestly, when I wrote this poem, I could feel the sun warming my back as I stooped to drop slips of zinnia seeds into the cold, damp earth. Visualizing has always been a part of my creative process. Choosing the words “vernal equinox” simply seemed so much more poetic than the single, plain word, “spring.”

Even though Paul loved my poem and it fit the contest guidelines, there was a problem: Audrey Kletscher Helbling. Count and you get 23 characters and two spaces in my name, putting me five over the 20-character limit.

I understood the space limitations, but explained to Paul that I really wanted Audrey Kletscher Helbling, not Audrey Helbling, on the billboard because that’s my professional name. He agreed to see if the sign-maker could fit my full name and keep it readable. From my experience years ago writing newspaper headlines, I knew that the letters “l” and “i” took less space than other letters. The sign-maker was able to honor my request.

I haven’t been up to Fergus Falls yet to see my poem and Audrey Kletscher Helbling splashed across four billboards. But a trip will be forthcoming.

FYI: Paul Carney hopes to expand Roadside Poetry, supported in Fergus Falls by the Fergus Area College Foundation, to other locations in Minnesota. However, additional funding is needed to finance start-up, printing and other costs. If you would like to support this public art venue, have questions, need more information or wish to enter the seasonal contest, visit roadsidepoetry.org.

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Paul Carney