Nicole Helget's latest novel is as dense with colorful characters as the St. Croix River is dense with white pine logs in the photo that inspired her writing.
"Stillwater," which will be released in February by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, began for Helget more than five years ago — in part with the recollection of a photo she saw once in a history course at Minnesota State University.
The image is of the St. Croix River in 1884 near Taylor's Falls. A cast of individuals are pictured standing on a tangled mat of logs, evidence of the wide river underneath nowhere to be scene. In the foreground of the image is a smartly dressed lad atop a near-vertical log in the center of the mass. Though the photo doesn't depict Stillwater per se, it bears witness to the city's formative years as the terminus for the white pine that fed Minnesota's once-booming logging business.
While Helget's novel is far from a recitation of the local history, her characteristically lyrical prose imagines the lot of rough-hewn and indelicate pioneers who carved civilization and statehood from wild lands. And though it will come as no surprise to the community that has followed her ascension into national literary recognition, "Stillwater" once again illustrates the author's unflinching treatment of the human condition. In moments of barbarity and humility, violence and tenderness, greed and sacrifice, Helget leaves no saint without sin and no sinner without grace.
"That (logjam) image paid off for me in a lot of ways I didn't expect," said the award-winning North Mankato author who will appear Satuday on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition to talk about her book. "It came to represent the conflict between preservation of the natural landscape and this industry barreling through the area."