Synopses & Reviews
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 towns richest couple, but is marked and threatened by her mothers 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 its brought to us in Nicole Helgets winning, gorgeous prose.
"Set on the Minnesota frontier, in the river town that eventually became the home of the state prison, this novel focuses on the intertwined lives of various settlers, Native Americans, escaped slaves, and orphans. They include twins Angel and Clement, who are separated by Angels adoption into a prominent family but connected by a psychic link; Mother St. John and Father Paul, who run an orphanage that also serves as a stop on the Underground Railroad; and trapper and bounty hunter Beaver Jean and his two Native American wives. As the narrative unfolds, we see the evolution of an unsettled territory into statehood, the growth of the timber industry, the uneasy relations with Native Americans, and Minnesotas role in the Civil War. VERDICT The novel often has a gothic feel, with madwomen, poisonings, and dead babies. But there is also an undercurrent of black humor, particularly in the portrayal of Beaver Jean, who is reprehensible but also a delightful comic creation...[Helget's] research has provided copious fascinating detail that she interweaves with her intriguing tale." — Library Journal
"Helgets tale of frontier life in the territory of Minnesota gives stark meaning to the term 'woebegone.'...this novel effectively dramatizes the seismic sociological shifts that shaped the American Midwest." — Kirkus
"Helgets colorful cast struggles against an 'every man for himself' frontier mentality: from a set of orphaned, separated twins named Clement and Angel; to their biological father, a neer-do-well fur-trapper named Beaver Jean; to Angels nervous, abusive adoptive mother in her fine taffeta skirts; to the nuns and priests and native Americans and escaped slaves who fill out the titular town of Stillwater. The question of whether they will—or wont—take the risks to help each other survive gives the story some tension, but Helgets lyricism is what elevates it"
"Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe, and her name is Nicole Helget. Stillwater is that rare historical novel that shines as much light forward as it does back. In prose that shimmers, Helget tells the story of orphans and runaway slaves, do-gooders and do-badders, gentle nuns and randy old coots, each of whom damn near leaps off the page, reminding us of who we are now. Rascally and robust, saucy and sincere and serious as a logjam, Stillwater is celebration of this country's coming of age from a writer staking her claim to greatness."
—Peter Geye, author of Safe from the Sea and The Lighthouse Road
"A wonder of a novel, rich in history, humor and heart, with prose that flows and sparkles like a sunlit river."
—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon and The Wilding
"Stillwater is a stunning achievement. Helget brings her keen sense for Southern Gothic to, of all places, the Northwoods of Minnesota. A fascinating story of a frontier logging town, this novel boasts a remarkable assortment of characters—Indians, slaves, trappers, missionaries, mothers and lost children—all caught up in the crosscurrents of American history. A highly touching and believable tale."
—Jonathan Odell, author of The Healing
As lyrical as a sonata, Ayelet Waldman’s follow-up novel to Love and Other Impossible Pursuits explores the aftermath of a family tragedy.
Set on the coast of Maine over the course of four summers, Red Hook Road tells the story of two families, the Tetherlys and the Copakens, and of the ways in which their lives are unraveled and stitched together by misfortune, by good intentions and failure, and by love and calamity.
A marriage collapses under the strain of a daughter’s death; two bereaved siblings find comfort in one another; and an adopted young girl breathes new life into her family with her prodigious talent for the violin. As she writes with obvious affection for these unforgettable characters, Ayelet Waldman skillfully interweaves life’s finer pleasures—music and literature—with the more mundane joys of living. Within these resonant pages, a vase filled with wildflowers or a cold beer on a hot summer day serve as constant reminders that it’s often the little things that make life so precious.
Fraternal twins, separated at birth, are raised in the same small town, where they struggle for freedom from their families, their destinies, and, sometimes, each other—all with the underground railroad as a haunting presence in their lives
About the Author
Born in 1976, NICOLE LEA HELGET grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, a childhood and place she drew on in the writing of her memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways. She received her BA and an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Based on the novels first chapter, NPRs Scott Simon awarded The Turtle Catcher the Tamarack Prize from Minnesota Monthly.
Reading Group Guide
1. Red Hook Road
hinges upon an almost unimaginable and unfathomable tragedy. Was it easy or difficult for you to accept the book’s premise?
2. Think about this statement by Mary Lou, the librarian at the Red Hook Library: “Half the relationships I know are really support groups in disguise.” How does Mary Lou’s assessment apply to the relationships in Red Hook Road?
3. Talk about Iris and Jane. Are they similar to one another in any way? What was at the root of Jane’s intense dislike of Iris?
4. During Iris’s visit, Connie says, “Most of us could use an asylum sometimes. A refuge from the world,” (page 239). Talk about all the different forms of sanctuary taken by key characters. Do these “escapes” help anyone deal with their grief?
5. What is your definition of “family?” Does marriage play a part in forming familial bonds, or is family created purely through blood connections? What does family mean to different characters in Red Hook Road?
6. During “The Second Summer,” Ruthie wants to turn the family’s traditional Fourth of July party into a celebration of the lives of Becca and John. What did you think of Ruthie’s idea? Can you understand why Iris rejected it?
7. Think about the comfort that people take in following traditions; can rituals help people, like the Copakens and Tetherlys, move forward after a setback, or even a tragedy? Did having the party each summer after Becca and John’s deaths ultimately help or hurt Ruthie?
8. Discuss Iris’s father, Mr. Kimmelbrod, particularly the hardships he endured as a young man. In “The Second Summer,” Kimmelbrod reproaches himself for not offering Iris more comfort after the unveiling at the cemetery. Do you think that experiencing great sadness automatically equips a person to console others?
9. Mary Lou the librarian offers this piece of advice as Ruthie considers whether to return to Oxford: “Nothing one does in one’s twenties, short of having a child, is irrevocable,” (page 196). Was this advice something Ruthie wanted to hear, needed to hear, or both? Do you agree with Mary Lou’s sentiment?
10. Consider Samantha’s role in Iris’s life. Would Iris have felt the same way toward Samantha had Becca not died? Was Samantha a representation of the daughter that Iris lost, or the daughter Iris never was herself?
11. Did you guess that Iris would circumvent Jane and approach Connie with the idea of moving Samantha to New York City to pursue her musical studies? Had you been in Iris’s position, would you have done the same thing?
12. Reread the book’s Prelude and Coda, which describe parts of John and Becca’s wedding before they get into the limousine. What was the author’s intent in opening and closing the novel in this way, do you think? Did this device enhance your reading of Red Hook Road?
13. Were you surprised when Daniel left Iris? Given the depths of their sadness and the state of their marriage at the time Daniel moves out, did you expect Iris would have been less shocked than she was?
14. Talk about Iris’s decision to list Becca by her maiden name on the grave marker, despite Becca’s decision to change her last name to Tetherly after she and John married. What does this decision say about Iris, and her relationship with her late daughter? Do you agree with what she did?
15. Throughout the book we learn about Becca and John through flashbacks and remembrances by some of the book’s characters. Would you have preferred to learn about them first-hand, in real time?
16. What does music represent in Red Hook Road? Is it a source of joy or sorrow? A way to hide, or a means of expression?
17. Did you identify with any of the characters? Which one(s), and why? Do you feel it was necessary to have experienced tragedy in order to appreciate what each of the characters in Red Hook Road goes through as they deal with their losses?
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