This book is my selection for the years 1800-1899.
Just cruising right through this challenge! Apparently, it’s my jam right now. For my second book, I chose Stillwater by Nicole Helget.
The novel is set in the Civil War-era U.S., specifically in the wilds of Minnesota, still considered part of the U.S. western expansion at that point. The story centers on grown-up twins, Angel and Clement Piety, who were orphaned at birth.
It begins with a log jam in the St. Croix River, a murder, and an altercation between the twins. Then, we delve into the backstory of the family and it is not as boring as those words I just typed.
In fact, the writing was quite a palate cleanser after The Shadow King! It’s light in tone, quirky, and straightforward. But still beautiful in parts. One of the beginning chapters has one of the sweetest, most reassuring death scenes I’ve ever read.
The story also features the twins’ parents and their stories, Eliza, a woman who escapes from slavery with her child, and a priest and religious sister (not a nun, she clarifies) who care for the pioneers, orphans, and Native Americans who come to them for assistance.
We also get to know the people who take in the orphaned twins. They are Big Waters, the loving American Indian woman who cares for Clement and considers him hers, and the rich but dysfunctional family who takes in Angel. Both stories are heart-rending and we see the twins grow up as products of their environments, but with the undeniable connection they feel to one another playing the most significant role in their lives.
I don’t want to give away any plot points because I found them a joy to follow and if you read it, you may enjoy discovering these characters and following their lives for yourself.
Two things bothered me about the book. One is not really about it per se and is kind of odd. It’s to do with a blurb on the back. Fellow Minnesota author Peter Geye (who I’d never heard of) says, “Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe…” It continues with more praise. But I read that and thought, first of all, Louise Erdrich is an incredibly talented and prolific author. She doesn’t have to make room for anyone, in my opinion. Also, she’s a treasured indigenous voice in the literary landscape, which, historically, has been very white in the U.S. I know I’m nitpicking a blurb here, but coming from a white guy, jauntily telling her to “move over” is tone deaf at best.
I’m sure he had the best of intentions and also wanted to acknowledge the great literary tradition of Minnesota, but I’m here to tell you it. didn’t. work.
Moving on, I also took note of the thoughts of Eliza, an enslaved woman who has taken her son Davis and run away from her owners. In a significant scene, Eliza is thinking about the risks she has taken. She remembers waffling about whether she should attempt to escape at all because, living with the Watsons, her owners, she knew she and her son always had a roof over their heads and three meals a day.
Now, is this a woman genuinely considering the consequences of running away with no family or means of her own? Or, is it a sentiment sneaking into the narrative of a well-intentioned white writer leftover from a time when white people promoted the narrative of the benevolent slaveholder? The slaveholder who cared for their slaves, who provided for them, in other words. I know that it’s natural for Eliza to weigh risks in a desperate situation and, to be fair, Helget doesn’t imply that Eliza was happy to be enslaved. In this story slaveholders are the villains and not the heroes. But I still wondered about it.
I’m always eager to see how white authors handle telling the stories of black or indigenous people. I don’t really feel like they have the right to. But when you’re writing historical fiction, I imagine you just have to handle it in the most sensitive way you can because history is history and it is, of course, important to include these stories.
But it’s risky as a white person’s perspective is naturally from the race of the historical oppressor. Helget is white. Can any other white author accurately imagine the thoughts and feelings of an enslaved black woman? Many authors would say it can be done. I’m always dubious and hyper-critical when they try.
Maybe I’m reaching here and my questions aren’t very clear. If so, I apologize. It’s a hard thing to write about.
On the whole, this novel was extraordinary and I loved the characters, the story, and the writing.