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. Read an excerpt of Stillwater.
You can find Nicole Helget on Twitter.