The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 30, 2014

'Stillwater' runs deep: A logjam of colorful characters in Helget's latest novel

A logjam of colorful characters populate Helget's latest novel

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Caught in the middle of such a conflict are Clement and Scholastica Piety, twin brother and sister born to Beaver Jean, an uncouth fur trapper with keen sense and a "reeking maw," and the child bride he purchased for "some coffee and a few shoddy pelts" from the abandoned wife of a lumber-camp laborer.

Deposited by their mother into the care of the local orphanage, the twins are soon separated. Scholastica is adopted into the wealthy family of a lumber baron and renamed Angel while Clement is left to be raised by the orphanage's pair of stoic matrons.

As Clement and Angel seek to understand their inexplicable bond cruelly severed shortly after their birth, their path is populated by the poisonous wife of the town's wealthiest inhabitant, runaway slaves, an earless priest, recalcitrant whores and Jean himself, who stumbles across his long-lost son only after tracking him for the bounty placed on his person for deserting the Union army.

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.

"I'm not trying to create mythical beings," said Helget of her cast of complex and often dichotomous characters, "because they're human."

Maybe too human for some. In one review posted by Kirkus Reviews, the author was criticized for crafting a narrative with "too many colorful characters clamoring for attention." Seemingly peripheral characters wander away from the margins of the narrative only to emerge later at its core; elsewhere, some of Helget's strongest personalities are left at the bottom of nameless rivers or hurling empty hysterics on the prairie.

But as characters emerge and recess, the process underscores the harsh realities of frontier existence. Only the toughest and cleverest earned the opportunity to lose their life on the Undeground Railroad, have their skull cleaved by a mistrusting daughter or their eyes burned blind by a martyred mother.

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