Stillwater, by Nicole Helget, is a literary work that delves into the most vile places in people, yet also into the most compassionate places all at the same time. Her light staccato prose rich with deep accents and personalities and characters with pain and emptiness, all searching for connections, to someone who cares for them, during such volatile times that were the late 1800s in small pioneer towns such as this one located in Minnesota.
Set during the times of The Civil War, I didn’t know exactly what to expect of the novel, but it really doesn’t at all focus on anything about the Civil War. People located Minnesota were fairly far removed from it, being so far up North, except for some of the soldiers from the North who “deserted” the war often fled far and bounty hunters were looking for quick cash. The book really focused on a pair of twins from Stillwater, who were separated from an orphanage when they were just young, the girl Angel going to a rich family in the town and the boy, Clement, being left at the orphanage with the nun and the Native American woman who lived there with her and helped her to care for the children. Not to give spoilers, but she became his mother he never appreciated throughout his life and Angel’s mother tried to be rid of her after adopting her. Because of their bond as twins, even living in different worlds, they found each other and connected in eerie ways.
The novel has a very gothic feel, a dark undertone revealing the sad parts of human nature. The carnal desires, the crude ways of people who fight to survive in the most dire of circumstances as was the frontier. In this time and place of the river town of Stillwater, where nature still fought its own battles against human conquering, Helget intertwines French fur traders, poverty-stricken whites, Native Americans, white Christians, runaway slaves, rich people (making money off logging industry) and all the orphaned and lost children of so many cultures. The real first generations to start mixing cultures and being lost to society.
Her novel is authentic and gritty and raw in a way that mirrors some of America’s best literary Southern gothic prose. Women with mental illnesses, sent mad over loss, and undercurrents of witchcraft, supernatural occurences, murder, death, and horrible human elements are all to be found. Helget is attune to the thoughts, actions, and feelings of so many bizarre personalities she creates in her characters and all while being true to the nature (and the actual nature–i.e environmental surroundings) of small town Minnesota.
And yet, she also shows us that life is so fragile. Clement saving a baby bird prematurely hatched from the river, a Native American woman loving an orphan boy with every ounce of herself, a runaway slave doing anything to save her son. A nun who always wanted children ending up having so many to care for in her refuge. Moments of pure human emotion that is almost haunting to the reader.
Helget gives us a writing style that is poetic and deep, with depth of content and original, unique sentence structure and word choice. Character driven though it is, the imagery is a propelling force. Her content is compelling and absorbing as if the reader is pulled into the river, and the town, themselves.
As dark, deep, and engaging as it was, it took me only a few hours to read due to her sentence structure and the fast-moving story line that swept me away like a river’s rushing current. A very thought-provoking read, I’ll think I’ll be pondering about this book awhile longer as the layers unfold in my mind and the connections to the characters peel away exposing all their beauty.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN-10: 0547898207Clement and Angel are fraternal twins separated at birth; they grow up in the same small, frontier logging town of Stillwater, Minnesota. Clement was left at the orphanage. Angel was adopted by the town’s richest couple, but is marked and threatened by her mother’s mental illness. They rarely meet, but Clement knows if he is truly in need, Angel will come to save him.Stillwater, near the Mississippi River and Canada, becomes an important stop on the Underground Railroad. As Clement and Angel grow up and the country marches to war, their lives are changed by many battles for freedom and by losses in the struggle for independence, large and small.Stillwater reveals the hardscrabble lives of pioneers, nuns, squaws, fur trappers, loggers, runaway slaves and freedmen, outlaws and people of conscience, all seeking a better, freer, more prosperous future. It is a novel about mothers, about siblings, about the ways in which we must take care of one another and let go of one another. And it’s brought to us in Nicole Helget’s winning, gorgeous prose.
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Author Nicole Helget, Biography~
She received her BA and an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Based on the novel’s first chapter, NPR’s Scott Simon awarded The Turtle Catcher the Tamarack Prize from Minnesota Monthly.