Hello from Wintry Minnesota!
I’m Nicole Helget, the author of Stillwater. I’m also a teacher and mother to six. Yep, six. My oldest is 17, and my youngest is nearly 4. Our favorite thing to do is get outside, close to places where we can imagine the beginnings of everything. That is, we like to get away from modern civilization for bits of time, go out into nature, and see for ourselves what the world must have looked like for early peoples. These forays into the natural world get our blood running and imaginations sparking. Sun, air, plants, water, and soil are naturally restorative and naturally stimulating. As a girl, I spent a lot of time outside or in the barn. The “outside” and the barn were extensions of the house. In the morning, my mom would get my sisters and I dressed and then shoo us out. And that’s where we stayed until it was time to eat or pick the straw out of our hair.
Aside from writing and mothering, I teach college full time in North Mankato. I really like it a lot, and I care a lot. I’ve noticed something possibly concerning, though, over the past years. While my students are really good at abstract thinking, in that I can provide them with some hypothetical situation and they can “see” it and empathize with the hypothetical characters involved (which is a really, really great skill!), they are stunned silent when I ask them to conjure a hypothetical situation on their own. Maybe it’s not a big deal, but here’s one way it plays out in a related way in the classroom: each week, my students get 10 new vocabulary words. For the test, I make a sentence with that word in it, and then they write a definition based on the context of how the word is used in the sentence. Most of them do very, very well on this. However, most of them struggle mightily when I ask them to create their own sentences with those same words. The difference in thinking is that in the first case, they understand how a word is used. In the second, they struggle to create a way to use the word.
I’m sure all kinds of cultural changes have contributed to this issue, if it is an issue. I love technology and use it to navigate my daily life, but I wonder about its ubiquitous presence in the lives of children. If your imaginary escapes have always been provided for you by television, internet, video games, etc., does it somehow hinder the expected development of creative thinking? Are we atrophying the inventive minds of our children? I don’t know, but I can’t help but wonder if the significant lack of unscripted outside time has somehow diminished our children’s ability to think up scenarios, people, problems, solutions, and ridiculous but necessary flights of fancy?
My thoughts flowed wild while sitting in the grove and staring up at the canopy. I imagined pioneers traversing the same farm roads I did. I conjured the lives of native people in the riverbed near where I grew up. I problem-solved right alongside their ghosts. Of course, all of that time outside has had a direct influence on the writing of my adult life. Even now, I observe the birds and clouds and currents and leaves and am endlessly interested in the natural world. Nothing tickles me more than when my kids look beneath rocks or under bark or ask me, “what if a fox was back there and what if a bear wanted that spot?,” “what if a bird fell down right here?,” “what if this rock was a house?” I heard all three of those thoughts only today on a wintry walk through the woods. And, seriously, can’t you see each one of those questions turning into a beautiful story?
Creative thinking begins with a glint of curiosity.
All right, I’m going on. Thank you for being interested in my book, Stillwater. You will find many of these themes in it; it is a story of earth, water, trees, twins, motherhood, tradition, progress, politics, freedom, and enslavement, a book that came to me in waves of seasonal changes and life changes. Enjoy the rest of winter, my reading friends!
by Nicole Lea Helget
Clement 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.