4.4 8
by Nicole Lea Helget

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"Rousing fun." — MinneapolisStar Tribune

“A wonder of a novel, rich in history, humor, and heart, with prose that flows and sparkles like a sunlit river.” — Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

“Lyrical and humorous [with] gorgeous prose . . . A rich and intricate novel full of


"Rousing fun." — MinneapolisStar Tribune

“A wonder of a novel, rich in history, humor, and heart, with prose that flows and sparkles like a sunlit river.” — Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

“Lyrical and humorous [with] gorgeous prose . . . A rich and intricate novel full of compassion for these pioneers and the place they live.” — St. Paul Pioneer Press

Raised in the same small community, Clement and Angel, fraternal twins separated at birth, grow up in different worlds. He lives among orphans, nuns, Native Americans, prostitutes. She lives in the town mansion, dressed in taffeta skirts and dodging her mother’s manic attention. Bound by a mystical connection, the twins rarely meet, but Clement knows if he is truly in need, Angel will come.

Near the Mississippi River and Canada, Stillwater becomes an important stop on the Underground Railroad. As the nation pushes boundaries, geographic and moral, and marches into civil war, the territory is at a crossroads. Clement and Angel have both learned to survive at the edge of things, but what will this new world hold for them? Will it set them free?

Stillwater is a lyrical, vibrant, often hilarious, and always unforgettable journey into our past, ourselves, and the impulses that drive us to create and explore.
“Told in a vigorous and warmly resonant prose that captures both the ridiculous and the sublime . . . A steady pleasure.” — Historical Novel Society

Stillwater has true grit . . . Entertaining, inventive, outrageous and well-told.”—MinnPost

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Helget, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir The Summer of Ordinary Ways, sets her third novel in the harsh frontier of Minnesota around the time of the Civil War, where the explosion in logging activity transforms her characters as wholly as it does the landscape. What drives the narrative is the dark side of the pioneer spirit—the urge to abandon home and loved ones in search of opportunity. Helget’s colorful cast struggles against an “every man for himself” frontier mentality: from a set of orphaned, separated twins named Clement and Angel; to their biological father, a ne’er-do-well fur-trapper named Beaver Jean; to Angel’s nervous, abusive adoptive mother in her fine taffeta skirts; to the nuns and priests and native Americans and escaped slaves who fill out the titular town of Stillwater. The question of whether they will—or won’t—take the risks to help each other survive gives the story some tension, but Helget’s lyricism is what elevates it: “Wedged among the reeds of the shore, the swan’s nest rested in a precarious position... Clement watched as the river took another few strands of the nest, and he was reminded of what happens when one thread is pulled from the cloth.” Agent: Faye Bender, Faye Bender Literary Agency. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
Helget's tale of frontier life in the territory of Minnesota gives stark meaning to the term "woebegone." The novel interweaves the stories of several denizens of Stillwater, Minn., as the town is transformed from wilderness outpost to lumber empire. We know from the beginning how wily Beaver Jean, a fur trapper and trader, meets his end--from an ax wielded by his own daughter. The events leading up to this date with destiny are recounted in an extended flashback which comprises the novel. Lydian, Beaver Jean's runaway wife, arrives at the orphanage run by Mother St. John, a Catholic nun, and the peripatetic priest Father Paul. There, Lydian gives birth to twins, a boy, Clement, and girl, Angel. After their mother escapes to Mexico, Angel is adopted by a wealthy couple, the Hatterbys, who live nearby, while Clement becomes the surrogate son of Mother St. John's assistant, Big Waters, a Native American exiled by her tribe. Soon after the twins are born, a fugitive slave, Eliza, arrives at the orphanage with her young son, Davis. Ailing from consumption, Eliza has run away from her masters while they were traveling in the North, and Beaver Jean, who's seeking other sidelines now that beaver hats are no longer fashionable menswear, is on her trail, hoping to collect a bounty. However, he's slowed considerably by a decrepit nag and his remaining two wives. Father Paul spirits Eliza and Davis to a house of ill repute (also a stop on the Underground Railroad), where Eliza dies. Davis is adopted by a prostitute, Daisy, who was ruined after being jilted by her Southern beau. Her most frequent client is Mr. Hatterby, whose wife is slowly poisoning Angel to keep her--and her husband--close to home. But when Clement and Angel reconnect, their fierce bond will explode everyone's best laid schemes. Although the dialects occasionally distract, and too many colorful characters clamor for attention, this novel effectively dramatizes the seismic sociological shifts that shaped the American Midwest.
From the Publisher

“Lyrical and humorous . . . Helget deftly weaves political and social history into . . . a rich and intricate novel full of compassion for these pioneers and the place they live.” — Saint Paul Pioneer Press

“Told in a vigorous and warmly resonant prose that captures both the ridiculous and the sublime.” — Historical Novel Society
“In moments of barbarity and humility, violence and tenderness, greed and sacrifice, Helget leaves no saint without sin and no sinner without grace . . . What unfolds is a novel of portraiture — of characters, of industry, of an era and the cold realities that shaped it — that does not give up its moments of humanity lightly.”—Mankato Free Press

“In Stillwater, Helget’s latest novel, the twins grow up in a landscape filled with colorful characters: trappers, loggers, outlaws, nuns, Native Americans and runaway slaves. And the land itself is vibrant. You can see its significance from the very first words of the novel.” —  NPR, Weekend Edition Saturday

“This one’s going to be a big deal. Helget’s new book, Stillwater, 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.” — Minnpost

“Rousing fun.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Helget’s tale of frontier life in the territory of Minnesota gives stark meaning to the term ‘woebegone’ . . . This novel effectively dramatizes the seismic sociological shifts that shaped the American Midwest.” — Kirkus Reviews

“[Stillwater] 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.” — Library Journal

“A stunning achievement. Helget brings her keen sense for Southern Gothic to, of all places, the Northwoods of Minnesota. A fascinating story of a frontier logging town, this novel boasts a remarkable assortment of characters — Indians, slaves, trappers, missionaries, mothers and lost children — all caught up in the crosscurrents of American history. A highly touching and believable tale.” — Jonathan Odell, author of The Healing

“Make room Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe. Rascally and robust, saucy and sincere and serious as a logjam, Stillwater is a celebration of this country’s coming of age from a writer staking her claim to greatness.” — Peter Geye, author of The Lighthouse Road

“A wonder of a novel, rich in history, humor and heart, with prose that flows and sparkles like a sunlit river.” — Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon and The Wilding

Library Journal
Set on the Minnesota frontier, in the river town that eventually became the home of the state prison, this novel focuses on the intertwined lives of various settlers, Native Americans, escaped slaves, and orphans. They include twins Angel and Clement, who are separated by Angel's adoption into a prominent family but connected by a psychic link; Mother St. John and Father Paul, who run an orphanage that also serves as a stop on the Underground Railroad; and trapper and bounty hunter Beaver Jean and his two Native American wives. As the narrative unfolds, we see the evolution of an unsettled territory into statehood, the growth of the timber industry, the uneasy relations with Native Americans, and Minnesota's role in the Civil War. VERDICT 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 (The Summer of Ordinary Ways) tends to go overboard with exposition in both narrative and dialog, but her research has provided copious fascinating detail that she interweaves with her intriguing tale.—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The River
Stillwater, Minnesota
May 1863
Thousands of white pine and tamarack logs were hung up, crisscrossed, and tangled to form a dam as tight as a sinner’s fingers on the St. Croix River. North of the logjam, the surface of the great river shimmered and reflected the sun, haloing the town of Stillwater so that its citizens shielded their eyes as they watched rivulets creep toward their homes and stores. A dry spring had depleted the water level, and an easterly crook in the riverbed caught the trunks, one after another, until they stretched shore to shore. The usual roar of the St. Croix was eerily quiet, and stagnant pools sat rank among the logs. The backed-up water breached Main Street, flooding the lower roads, the railroad tracks, and the basement of the state prison.
   The women of Stillwater walked from one side of town to the other on boards men had thrown over the miry roads. Mud dangled like lace along skirt hems. A young woman, laden with rattraps, tripped and fell and was nearly hit by the wheels of a passing wagon, but Mr. Barton Hatterby, a local politician, grabbed her wrist and pulled her into his own arms just in time. Her heart beat hard. Mr. Hatterby was handsome and had more than once charmed a young lass out of her knickers. Everyone in Stillwater said his wife, Millicent Hatterby, was “touched” and, worse, had been a poor mother to their daughter, Angel. When Millicent Hatterby heard about her husband’s good deed, she flew into another jealous fit and threatened to throw herself down the stairs. Mr. Hatterby tied her to the bedpost and sent for the priest.
   Father Paul, from St. Mary’s Basilica, who’d been overseeing the building of a clay berm to hold water back from his church, rushed away to pray over the affected woman. While he was gone administering extreme unction, the laborers he’d hired skulked into the warm church and stared up at a ceiling fresco of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Heart until they fell asleep upon the dry padded pews. While they slept, the river water poured over the berm and rippled down the marble stairs into the church basement, destroying relics such as a wood sliver from Christ’s cross, a bone chip from the apostle James, and a thread from Judas’s hanging rope.
   Stillwater horses found themselves stuck in the sludge up to their bellies. One fought so fiercely against the sticky matter that he worked himself into a heart attack and died where he stood. The rest of the horses looked as though they wore thigh-high stockings of grime. On the outskirts of town, Beaver Jean’s hogs, drowned when the waters overcame their pen, floated, their legs up and bellies bloated. Beaver Jean’s two wives lassoed the carcasses together, pulled them to dry land, and disemboweled the animals. The women hadn’t seen Beaver Jean in days. But they were content in each other’s company, with or without him.
   On the north end of Stillwater town, the whores of the Red Swan Saloon waved colorful handkerchiefs and whistled to prospective clients from the safety of the dry balcony. They ordered the hot-footed men to leave their dirty boots on the stairs. And rather than visit each woman individually, Father Paul stood on the bottom steps and threw general absolutions up to all the doves at once. He came to hear their confessions weekly, yelling, “For your fornications say a decade of the rosary and sin no more!” The women crossed themselves. They giggled and shouted down, “We won’t!”
   Mr. Hatterby, who liked to wear his boots in every situation, bought an extra pair, which he kept on the third stair and would exchange for his sodden ones before he ascended to the room of Miss Daisy, the best whore at the Red Swan as far as he was concerned. Mr. Hatterby showed no shame as he passed Father Paul on the stairs. The politician had promised in his will to bequeath a great gift upon St. Mary’s Basilica, and so Father Paul prayed forgiveness for the politician’s lust and adultery too, even though the man’s shadow had never graced a confessional.
   Mother St. John, headmistress of Stillwater Home for Orphans and Infirmed, sent her children out with pails. Frogs teemed from every corner of the earth, as if sent forth in a biblical plague. The children captured them, knocked them out against rocks, and brought them to Mother St. John, who butchered them, then floured and fried the legs in hot grease. After the frog-leg feasts, prayers, and bedtime, Mother St. John’s helper, Big Waters, lifted her feet for Mother St. John to tend. The withered old things were drenched, wrinkled, pale, bleeding, and dropping skin in leaves. Big Waters was called “The Beggar” in town for her frequent trips to the backdoors of the wealthy, appealing for pennies for the orphans. Big Waters had the tale of the north in her. She knew the story of the place all the way back to creation if anyone cared to ask, which no one ever did.
   Stillwater children squealed with delight and were head-to-toe wet from frolicking in the water during the day. But many of them took sick with fever and chills at night. Thomas and Angel Lawrence’s youngest daughter, Goldenrod, caught a chill and would suffer a cough for the rest of her short life. Thomas Lawrence was heir to and operator of the largest timber outfit in the entire north. He spent little time at home, though his wife, Angel, was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in Stillwater. Some said, though, that if you looked near enough, you could see that her eyes were too close together and pitch-black and that her nose and chin were too pinched to be considered beautiful. Everyone agreed that she had strange ways, like her mother, Millicent Hatterby, and kept suspect company. There was something about a hidden affair with an army deserter, some gossip about a Negro lover, and more speculation about an illegitimate child kept hidden in the basement of the Lawrences’ mansion. And some said she wasn’t even a natural child, that she’d been abandoned by one of those prairie mothers who every year popped out a baby she couldn’t feed and was then adopted by the Hatterbys when she was but a few days old. Some said her rich husband, whose Lawrence lineage went all the way back to French aristocrats, would never have married Angel Hatterby if he’d known the truth. Some said that if he found out now, he’d divorce her and disown the children and marry someone more suitable, and there were plenty of willing prospects in Stillwater. Some of the women from other prominent families of Stillwater had a good mind to send Thomas Lawrence an anonymous note. Angel Hatterby Lawrence never saw a friendly female face in Stillwater.
   After three weeks of the logjam, the whole town stunk of wet wood, rotting foliage, overflowing outhouses, drowned animals, and moldy potatoes and onions. Insects of every miserable biting and stinging kind proliferated by the millions and hung over the town in a buzzing fog. Workers from Lawrence’s company and all available men from the woods, the riverboats, the farmlands, the businesses, and the mills ran to the river with picks and shovels. They jabbed at logs. Everyone had a stake in it. The freedom of the river affected the livelihood of all. The mayor demanded that the logjam be freed. “Blow it up,” he said. “Get that river going again.” He picked at his ear, where a malarial mosquito had bitten, as he watched a thin man hack at a log near the front of the jam.

Meet the Author

Born in 1976, NICOLE LEA HELGET grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, a childhood and place she drew on in the writing of her memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways. 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.

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Stillwater 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Justpeachy1 More than 1 year ago
Stillwater is the latest novel from author Nicole Helget. Set in the Northwoods of Minnesota this is a novel that reads like a poem with spectacular prose and clarity that is rare in this type of novel. Readers who are looking to experience a book, as much as read it, will fall in love with this novel. There are two distinct themes in this book, motherhood in all of it's various forms, good and evil and freedom which ultimately comes in the same shapes. A wonderful tale set during a traumatic time in our nations history. Helget has written a novel that requires heart, soul and imagination! What I liked: Wow! What didn't I like? Being a fan of historical fiction I was excited to read this story from Nicole Helget. I was fortunate to have read her novel, The Turtle Catcher, so I knew to expect the beautiful wording and style in that is unique to the author. She is truly a wordsmith. Sometimes an author has this uncommon talent for knowing which words fit together to form not only good sentences but beautiful ones as well and Helget is one of those rare few.  I also enjoyed the fact that Helget stays true to herself and her heritage by continuing to write stories set in her home state of Minnesota. I first became enamored with the Northwoods of Minnesota by reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and I thought a lot about how both writers described the area and how things were done during these two very different time periods. I loved the setting and thought Helget did a fantastic job with it.  The town of Stillwater takes on the characteristics of an actual character in the story, so strong is it's connection to the entire book. There are many things going on in this town during this seething and changing time in American history. Helget writes with passion about the Underground Railroad, the Native American influences, as well as, that of the trappers and the missionaries. So many different kinds of forces all culminating in this one little logging town. What an incredible story! This book is about freedom. But not just freedom from slavery but freedom from many things and Helget is ever conscious of this in her writing. The theme of motherhood also resonates throughout the book, as the author traces the many 'mothers' that both Angel and Clement have during their lifetime. And how each mother impacted their lives. Freedom and motherhood may not ring in the readers mind as synonymous until they've read this book, but after they will be reminded of how the two fit together forever. What I didn't like:  I loved how Helget was also able to use humor with the character of Beaver Jean. It hard not to chuckle at his antics and how he impacted the story. But there were a few characters that may leave the reader hanging, because there is no resolution as to why they were in the book or what happens to them in the end. The book focuses on the journey of self discovery for Angel and Clement and skims a bit over the secondary characters. But that's almost forgivable when you look at how good the rest of the story is.  Bottom Line: If you are remotely interested in historical fiction, read this book. If you are from Minnesota, read this book. If you want to read a lyrical, rhythmic tale of freedom at any cost, read this book. Get the point.... READ THIS BOOK!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With tones of WIlla Cather and William Faulkner, Nicole Helget's "Stillwater" is flat out damn good writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommended! Odd and unusual characters. Loved the history and setting. Quirky story that kept my attention. Novel includes: twins, a murder, a wonderful nun, a great priest, adoptions, orphans, multiple wives, racial tension, info on the Civil War, underground railroad, obsessive love, cruel and evil mother, prostitution, and much, much more. Excellent! Other excellent authors are Sandra Dallas, William Jarvis, Lynn Austin, Duncan Barrett, Eric Larson, Margaret Mayhew, Mary Gibson, Judith Lennox, and Laurie Graham. This book deserves an A+++++++
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unnecessarily crude...gross
Twink More than 1 year ago
Stillwater is Nicole Helget's latest book. The first few chapters of Stillwater are seemingly the end of the book. We know what has happened, but was the path and story that led here? Helget quickly immerses us into her tale, set in the frontier town of Stillwater Minnesota and spanning thirty years from 1840-1870. A runaway wife makes her way to the local orphanage and gives birth to a pair of twins - boy and girl. The girl is adopted by a local wealthy family and lives a much different life than her brother who is raised at the orphanage. That's the bare bones outline, but Helget's book is so much bigger. She deftly explores the connection between siblings, the need to belong and mothering from many different views. From the mother who walks away from the twins, from the daughter who is only a possession and tool for her mother, from the shunned Indian wife, from the nun who runs the orphanage, from the runaway slave who is desperate to save her son and more. She also uses the tundra swans of Minnesota metaphorically to great effect. These themes are set within a fascinating historical narrative, covering the early days of settlement, the underground railroad, the Civil War and the inexorable path of progress. Helget's descriptions of time and place are excellent and provided me with vivid mental pictures as I read. Helget is a resident of Minnesota and that personal connection shows. The characters are unique and unusual. Their actions often don't follow a straight line and their reactions are not always what we would expect. Some serve as background while others are more fully fleshed out. I love old photographs and often wonder about the lives of those pictured. Stillwater reminded me of that - bits and pieces of history wound through with lives that might have been. All of this is accomplished with absolutely wonderful prose. Helget is a born storyteller - I was entranced from first page to last