Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Nicole Helget’s inventive, well-told ‘Stillwater’ has true grit

“Stillwater” is set in the mid-1800s, at the height of the logging boom, and expands into an epic tale about westward expansion, the fur trade, and more.

Photo by Jason Miller, Franchise Graphics and Photography
Nicole Helget

This one’s going to be a big deal. Nicole Helget’s new book, “Stillwater” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is so entertaining, inventive, outrageous and well-told that I’m imagining a thousand book clubs gathering over her words, filmmakers vying to make the movie, and a leap from mere critical acclaim to something more like celebrity for the Mankato writer — for better or for worse.

“Oh god. Attention is very, very scary for me,” says Helget, who modestly says the book is as likely “an F as an A.” (It’s no F.) “It takes a lot for me to even do public readings. My voice shakes and I want to run and hide. I am so wracked by anxiety just getting ready for this book tour that I actually gave myself shingles.”

Even so, she’s not exactly hiding from the world. Helget teaches at South Central College and Minnesota State University in Mankato. Her earlier works, including the novel, “The Turtle Catcher,” and memoir “The Summer of Ordinary Ways,” won her scads of attention, so she knows the drill. And she has six children — which makes everyday life a big social occasion. It’s hard to see just where she might have fit in the time to write “Stillwater,” which is not just a feat of complex storytelling, but an impressive research project.

Article continues after advertisement

‘Very normal to me’

“Well, it did take me five years. And I have a lot of help,” she admits. “But everyone I know looks like this. They are creative, busy and industrious. It’s just a way of life that is crazy but feels very normal to me.” (Later, she mentions that she has two other books coming out this year, too. If you are still working out the logistics of six kids, take note that Helget has five sisters in the area who pitch in. But still: six. Take that, Lauren Sandler, who last year declared the secret to being a successful writer is to have only one child. 

“Stillwater” is set in the mid-1800s, at the height of the logging boom, and expands into an epic tale about westward expansion, the fur trade, tribal relocation, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, and politics in the pre-statehood era. To get into the mindset, Helget tromped the streets of Stillwater, read settler narratives, and rooted through the Minnesota History Center’s archives to ground her imagination in the state’s colorful past. She credits a college course taught by noted Minnesota historian William E. Lass (author of more than 100 books) for her ability to go back in time through her characters.

“He’s a great, smart historian who really had a profound impact on me,” she says. “I’m completely enamored with history, and there are so many conflicts in our past that we still haven’t resolved. I am in awe when I consider the conditions people lived through, but I don’t romanticize it as it seems many people do — so much of what happened during settlement times was purely hapless and idiotic.”

Beaver Jean

That perfectly describes the “Stillwater” character Beaver Jean, an aging fur trapper with three wives — two giggling, conniving Native women, one dim, teenaged redhead he bought for cheap who takes off in a snowstorm while nine months pregnant, leading Beaver Jean on a goose chase that crisscrosses numerous narratives woven across a rapidly changing territory — including those of two twin babies, separated at birth. Beaver Jean is an odiferous, bumbling and undaunted anti-hero who seems to have risen straight from a Coen brothers movie. In fact, in the book’s acknowledgments, Helget thanks the filmmakers, as well as Duluth band Trampled By Turtles, for helping her set the mood for her tale.

“Every time I wrote a scene involving Beaver Jean, I would listen to the Trampled By Turtles song ‘Codeine,’ over and over and over again,” she said. There’s a definite Midwest Gothic quality to the writing, which fixes a poet’s eye on plenty of historically accurate death and dismemberment. But readers who may have found Helget’s “The Turtle Catcher” overly grim will be gratified to find that she’s ratcheted back her penchant for the gruesome in favor of an also historically accurate amount of humor, in the form of emphatically flatulent founding fathers, some really creative swearing, and a Babelanian assortment of dialects.

“You had French fur trappers, several Native languages, missionaries and timber men from the East, slaves from the South, and settlers from all over Europe, most of them with very little education, all trying to communicate with each other here. I tried to capture what that sounded like,” said Helget, who studied William Faulkner and Willa Cather’s use of dialect, while piecing together the sound of phonetically written narratives to train her ear. The result is very amusing, and accurate as far as any of us will ever know. It would make a great script.

‘Great model for structure’

“Hey, if the Coen brothers called and wanted to make this a movie, I’d be so thrilled. I study their films, and teach “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother Where Art Thou” in my classes as examples of the Hero’s Journey,” she says. “I love their dialogue, soundtracks, and they are a great model for structure.”

She doesn’t say it, but Beaver Jean is clearly a role designed for Jeff Bridges. Someone’s gotta get him a copy of this book.