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February 24, 2014

Book Notes - Nicole Helget "Stillwater"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Nicole Helget's Stillwater is a lyrical historical novel set in the hardscrabble northern Minnesota of the late 1800s.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"The novel often has a gothic feel, with madwomen, poisonings, and dead babies. But there is also an undercurrent of black humor, particularly in the portrayal of Beaver Jean, who is reprehensible but also a delightful comic creation...[Helget's] research has provided copious fascinating detail that she interweaves with her intriguing tale."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Nicole Helget's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Stillwater:

I'm partial to Minnesota, have lived here all my life, which is why I probably prefer cold-weather people. I'm comfortable with their disarming concentration, their bull-headed perseverance, stone-faced irony, and white-knuckled work ethic.

Our growing season is very short. Our ancestors moved with the seasons, hurried to plant, tend, harvest, and preserve between the thaw and frost. That pressure and urgency creates tension, and tension is a pioneer to ingenuity and art. Our citizens have traditionally been very supportive of funding projects that provide stewardship to the environment and to the arts. The support keeps some of our best talent from leaving and also attracts some of the country's best talents to our state.

Here, bragging is discouraged, but suggesting an air of superiority is not. In that spirit, I'd like to introduce some of the best songwriters, musicians, and singers from our state. Some of these folks were born here, and some are transplants. Enjoy.

Trampled by Turtles "Alone" from Stars and Satellites

The twins in my book, Clement and Angel, born of a wandering fur-trapper and his child-bride, struggle with abandonment throughout the book. While Angel puts her chin up and goes forward, Clement ruminates and ignores the ones who love him best while seeking dead-end connections his entire life.

"You come into the world, alone. You go out of the world, alone."

The Pines "All the While" from Dark So Gold

An air of mysticism floats between Clement and Angel who, though separated at birth, share an intuitive connection. While writing, I listen to a lot of music and sometimes get into something close to a single-minded trance. The music and vocals of The Pines, simultaneously ethereal and rooted, help.

"It's getting late, and it's so cold…I was lost, but I was free."

Erik Koskinen "Glow Sky Glow" from America Theatre

Clement, in an act of despair, marches off to war. His friend, Davis, decides to tag along. The Civil War attracted many Midwestern boys with its promises of valor and excitement. Once there, the young men endured tedium, weariness, illness, and then a glut of gore and death. You can hear the homage to Whitman in this song, among the woodsy vocals and coyote guitaring.

"Beat, drums, beat. Feet, march, feet…Glow, sky, glow…Die, joy, die…Poor, fall, poor."

Frankie Lee "Horses" from East Side Blues

In the time period of Stillwater, animals, horses in particular, were integral to the survival of people. I've got a couple of horses tottering around the book. One's an old useless nag named Alice. The other is a bumptious beast named Charlemagne. They provided endless challenges for their owner, Beaver Jean. In "Horses," Frankie captivatingly captures the essence of literal and emotional wandering, the loneliness and resignation that can come with those states.

"Follow the sun, south from the snow…Time alone, was all that I got left."

Chastity Brown "I Left My Home" from Back-Road Highways

This one's for my character, Lydian, who never really had a good home until she joins the religious life (spoiler alert). First, her father ditches her with a wild stepmother who trades her off to Beaver Jean as his third unlucky wife. He impregnates her and leaves. Then, she runs away to give birth away from the abusive antics of his other wives. Finally, she abandons the freshly born twins at the infirmary and wanders out into a blizzard.

"When I left home this morning, you know I didn't even cry."

Actual Wolf "Kerosene and Spark" from Actual Wolf

Minnesota was the first state to volunteer troops for the Union war effort. Governor Ramsey was horsing around in Washington D.C. at the time President Lincoln called for volunteers in the spring of 1861. Ramsey rushed to his office and pledged our infant state's service. Once home, Ramsey used some smooth talking to get the numbers he promised to Lincoln. The young men who enlisted were told they were devoted to 3 months of service. One month later, they discovered that they were devoted to 3 years of service. As you can imagine, lots of people didn't like this, including my character, Clement, who deserts.

"Presidentially determined, I will raise my warrior's cup. And preach you all a sermon laced with leadership and love."

Haley Bonar "Like Ice and Cold" from Wntr Snds

This one's for the climate of Minnesota, which can be hot and hanging or frigid and electrically dry. Like everywhere else, we're affected by the fluctuation of light hours. In December, we get somewhere around 8 hours of light or so. In June, it's more like 15 hours. The light, along with the water bodies left by the glaciers, make life curious—hard sometimes, but always thought-provoking. The weather, the land, the water, and the seasons are like our God here. We fear it. We love it. We revere it. We trust it knows best.

"I don't know which way we'll go. I trust it though. I trust it though."

Bon Iver "Minnesota, WI," from Bon Iver

This is for our friends to the east, Wisconsin, with whom we share the beautiful St. Croix river valley and where Justin Vernon, lead singer of Bon Iver, grew up.

"Water's running through in the valley where we grew to write this scripture."

Keith Secola, "Old Trader," from Native Americana A Coup Stick

This one's for Beaver Jean, my old trapper, who mourns the old ways of life, when Indian chiefs and beaver trappers ruled the north, before the pioneers of agriculture and timber transformed the culture and environment forever. Beaver Jean is my foil to our mythological notions of our early frontiersmen and explorers. For every Zebulon Pike, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Hugh Glass, there were hundreds of men who were consumed by bears or died of exposure. Anyway, I like the blend of old and new in this song.

"This old trader. This old post. This old way of life and land we love the most…All these memories remain"

Ashleigh Still "Shoreside," from Wintertime

This one's for Eliza, my runaway slave, dying mother, lonely lover who embarks on an impossible journey to find the love of her life, Jim, during the coldest months of a northern winter. Ashleigh, crisp and warm, captures Eliza's last moments, a flight of memories, visions, snowflakes, and notes, in this tune.

"I'll be shoreside, with my arms stretched out to the sea. Let the snow fall all around and cover me…awestruck, under the stars tonight."

good night, gold dust, "Absolution," from Toward the Sun

In my real life, I don't subscribe to supernatural beliefs and often bemoan the negative impact religious zeal has on our culture. But, missionaries played an important role in the settlement of Minnesota and of the entire west. It is true that they did not always bring good, as I recount in a scene between Mother St. John and her helper, Big Waters. But, in many cases, the missionaries were kind-hearted souls who thought they were improving the lives of those struggling to survive. Mother St. John and Father Paul are such people. I like the sound and sentiment of this song, a lot, from my fellow Mankatoans, good night, gold dust.

"Put my hands on your skin, cuz you asked me to. I whispered, we're absolved of our sins. Cuz we needed to be."

Stacy K "Nobody Knows" from Swarming with Frenzy, Swirling with Delight

This one's for Angel, a beautiful, mysterious woman, who survived her mother's repeated attempts to poison her and who, in her most vulnerable moments, is mystically capable of communicating with her twin, Clement. Despite being abandoned and abused, she grows up to be strong, if cold and mostly alone. I like the feel, sound, and lyrics of Stacy K's song.

"She went walking through the midnight air…going where nobody knows, no one knows."

The Porchlights "Ballad of Beaver Jean"

This group wrote this song for my character, Beaver Jean. One of the things I love most about writing is seeing and hearing how the work affects or moves people. I've been moved to create something new from several different works of literature and music. I like that I seem to have inspired others to get into that mode, too.

Katy Vernon "Empty House," from Before I Forget

Millicent Hatterby, my most chilling character, is the mother of Angel and wife of a powerful political figure who's constantly racing away to tend to the treaties and negotiations that will ultimately make Minnesota a state. To beg his attention, Millicent poisons Angel, making her ill, in an attempt to draw Mr. Hatterby back home. This condition is real. It's called Munchausen by proxy. I imagine that this is the kind of song Millicent might sing.

"Don't make a sound. It will fade. But it's making me crazy. I feel like I'm obsessed."

Charlie Parr "Midnight Has Come and Gone," from Roustabout

This one's for Clement and his trees and for anyone else who has ever felt an affection for a wooded grove. And for the ghost forests of Minnesota, into which Clement runs after he escapes from prison.

"I'll disappear into the trees and no one will see my face."

Bob Dylan "Cross the Green Mountain" from Gods and Generals

And this one. Doesn't matter where he goes, we will always claim him as our native son.

"I'm ten miles outside the city, and I'm lifted away in an ancient light that is not of day. They were calm. They were gloomed. We knew them all too well. We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell."

Nicole Helget and Stillwater links:

the author's website

Bustle review
Pioneer Press review
Publishers Weekly review

Kirkus review
Minnesota Post profile of the author
Stillwater Gazette interview with the author

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Turtle Catcher
Mankato Free Press profile of the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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