Monday, March 10, 2014

Stillwater by Nicole Helget

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Read: March 1, 2014

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.

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I'll be the first to admit I wasn't all that excited about reading Nicole Helget's Stillwater. Don't get the wrong idea, no one forced it on me or anything, it just wasn't one of those titles I felt compelled to crack open the minute it arrived. I was wary of the subject matter and I wasn't entirely convinced the narrative would work for me, but you know what? Once I got started, I couldn't put it down. 

Helget's setting really worked in her favor. There is a wealth of fiction set in this era, but the remote frontier town of Stillwater offered a refreshingly original glimpse at a lesser known side of life in this particular period. The local also made it easy for Helget's wide array of characters to convincingly interact despite their dramatically diverse backgrounds.

The other thing that struck me was the emotional depth of the narrative. Helget takes her readers to some very dark and unexpected places and unlike a lot of authors, she's able to do without forcing the story in unnatural directions. Relayed to the reader in hauntingly elegant prose, one can't help feeling moved story it conveyed within the text.

The only thing that didn't appeal to me was the psychic link between the twins. I know of the studies and I respect there are many who will appreciate Helget's application of it, but I think the plot element been done to death and I couldn't help wondering at its necessity in a story that already had so much going for it. 

Southern Gothic isn't my usual fair, but I found the dark humor of Helget's narrative and the originality of Stillwater's plot highly satisfying. 

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Hadn't he risked the lives of countless others? Why was she so cold to him? So icy? He was the only real family she had. What was it going to take to make her see? 
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