Nicole Helget's Stillwater (HMH) is a piece of deeply relevant historical fiction that explores issues still relevant today. Though the story is solidly rooted in its context, Helget's nuanced look at everything from race to religion to class to environmental destruction are deeply affecting because they are still tensions within modern society. The story she tells is captivating and memorable, but its stakes come from forces bigger than the lives of any of Helget's characters.
Set in the town of Stillwater, Minn. in the mid-19th century, the story centers on fraternal twins Clement and Angel. Separated at birth, the two lead very different lives. Angel is adopted by one of the frontier town's wealthiest families — a family made dangerously unstable by Angel's adopted mother's mental illness. Clement, on the other hand, is left in a Catholic home for orphans, looked after mostly by a Native American woman cast out from her tribe years ago.
As the story follows Clement and Angel's unusual lives, trying to make their way in the world, it also traces the lives of various other people who make up the small community of Stillwater, from bounty hunters to runaway slaves, from priests to prostitutes, from outlaws to nuns, from Native Americans to settlers, and does so with insight and compassion.
Impressively, Helget is able to look with compassion on her characters without absolving them of their social sins. We may understand, even enjoy reading about, an amoral character like Beaver Jean who beats his wives and hunts down runaway flaws, but even though the narrative makes him understandable, it does not forgive him his faults. Helget approaches her characters with clear eyes — people who help runaway slaves are not free of "benevolent" racism, for instance.
Overall, the story Helget tells rings true from start to finish precisely because it is so embedded in its particular circumstances. Yet, even though her plot and her characters are engaging all on their own, the story's greatest stakes come from the issues that are social rather than personal. In an odd way, knowing how all of these things turn out make the story itself more compulsively readable. We know that the Native tribes lose their land, that the Civil War will be won, the trees cut down, the slaves freed but subjected to a new era of injustice. We know all of this, but we read on to find out if our characters will somehow be alright despite everything else.
Helget's ability to view these with clarity and to present them in a way that is still relevant elevates her already enjoyable narrative and makes it a must read for anyone interested in historical fiction — or anyone who isn't.