The Farmer's Daughter
Nicole Lea Helget
The Summer of Ordinary Ways
Nicole Lea Helget grew up on a farm near Sleepy Eye, one of the great town names in all of Minnesota. If Helget's first book were a novel, readers would accuse her of high irony: How else could that bucolic name describe a place of puppy murder, cattle torture, hellfire Catholic sermons, and other varieties of rural despair? Yet Helget has written a memoir, and the words Sleepy Eye will never sound the same.
Having grown up on a farm not far from a Minnesota town encrusted with mythic significance--Walnut Grove, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder--I know a little about southern Minnesota gothic. A previous owner of our farm, a chronic drunk blasted on cheap booze, rolled off his tractor and ran himself over. Suicide runs in my extended family like hemophilia among the European royals. Losing the farm is usually the great tragedy of rural American life. Looking back, I sometimes think it was the best thing that happened to us. I may have grown up in a little house on the prairie, but it was a haunted little house.
I've been waiting years for someone to write the great sweeping tragedy of that lost life, that flat and lonely farmland prettified beyond recognition by a TV series shot in the hills of California. Instead of an epic, Helget has given us something closer to gemlike haiku: Her memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, serves up farm life raw, with its undercurrents of sex and violence brought to the fore.
Helget will practice her earliest seduction on the milkman at the age of eight. She will take her first sip of booze from a neighbor named Moonshine, an old man with "seven or eight teeth the color and size of coffee beans." She will be warned by the priest of "dirty needles planted under gas pump handles by bitter homosexuals with AIDS," and "murderous Democrats" responsible for a holocaust of fetuses. She will watch her parents go half-mad with disappointment and longing, and she will survive to write this book, a gift of close attention bestowed on a corner of the world that may not see it as a gift. I kept thinking of the words of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: "When a writer is born into a family, the family is doomed."
Here, the tragedy is not losing the farm, but falling back on it. Helget's father suffered the Curse of the Bambino, at one remove. Drafted by the Red Sox out of Sleepy Eye St. Mary's High School, he spent several years in the team's farm system, never making a splash in the bigs. In 1977 he was cut and returned to Minnesota, to his birthright as a son of German farmers: 80 acres, 20 cows, a bull, and a pickup truck.
Helget begins with a display of her father's rage, as he stabs a milk cow to death for refusing to separate from its calf. The scene is bloody and cinematic; it gains its power in part from the jump-cut style of the narrative. Helget moves easily from scenes of playing catch with her father on the lawn to the bloodbath in the barn. The connection between his failure in baseball and his attack on the cow is never made explicit. It doesn't need to be. One of the great pleasures of Helget's style is her mature belief in the intuitive intelligence of her readers--a rarity for a writer so young (Helget is 29 and has been writing for two years).
There are, generally speaking, three kinds of autobiography. There's the social memoir, in which the writer uses personal experience to leap into larger issues (see Joan Didion's Where I Was From, which examines the history of California through the experiences of Didion's family); and the nonfiction coming-of-age tale, which uses the techniques of fiction--dramatic scenes and realistic dialogue--to tell a story of character development over a discrete period of time (think of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life). The trickiest variety of all is the memory collage, which relies on the accumulation of detail and the evocative power of language to tease connections out of the bingo hopper of memory.
Helget's reminiscence plays out as a masterful example of the last, alternating between the early 1980s and early 1990s. It reminds us, by its very form, that the best writing is not merely the transcription of life as it's lived--such a project would be interminable, with its long stretches of remembered boredom, its painstaking descriptions of twice-daily bowel movements--but an act of sifting, sorting, prioritizing. In this case, the reader is not merely led by the hand to an illumination, as if a book were a hike uphill with a sweeping view from the top. The payoff arrives on every page, in the pleasing rhythms of the sentences, the fineness of the imagery.
Helget, who teaches writing at Minnesota State University in Mankato and recently won Minnesota Monthly's Tamarack Prize for fiction, has crafted a prose style a little like the best lyrics of Uncle Tupelo: sparely lyrical, beautifully melancholy. Although her father is an alcoholic, her mother an embittered farm wife made alternately furious and mute by the drudgery of caring for six rambunctious daughters, Helget never resorts to caricature in depicting their struggles. Whether they're waging a domestic cold war over her father's drinking, or arguing over her mother's disgust at the nuisance of 13 puppies birthed by the family mutt, both parents come across as sympathetic, if frustrated. Often their most shocking acts are described in an unaffected, unsurprised voice:
Dad shot the puppies in the milkroom of the dairy barn. I sat on the gravel outside the barn door, legs stretched long, picking the dead scab on my elbow. Annie Jo chewed a tomato on the cottonwood stump near Mom's garden, legs crossed Indian style. She palmed and ate it like an apple and red juice slipped down her chin and onto her chest, shirtless and bony, like a little boy's. When I tucked my knees into a chin rest, the waves of my shorts wrinkled around my hips, gravel grains clung to the backs of my thighs and calves. I wiped them off and passed my fingers over the dips they left in my skin. Grasshoppers sparked around me on the dry barnyard grass.... One tangled in my hair just as the first shell popped from the .410 shotgun and the noise squeezed my lungs, took my air. I unwound the struggling grasshopper from a curl and heard dad release and reload the gun. The remaining puppies yipped and scurried. Their tails tip-tapped the concrete under the echo of shot and barks. I pinched the grasshopper between my thumb and finger, and a runny mess dripped even as its legs still twitched.
Rarely will you see the less-is-more principle executed so beautifully. No high-flown rhetoric, no attempt to explain in sweeping terms what it all meant: By counterpoising the killing of the puppies with the killing of a single helpless grasshopper, Helget reveals in miniature the impulse of a child to mimic the behavior of the adults she loves.
In the industry trade bible Publisher's Weekly, Hans Weyandt, owner of Micawber Books in St. Paul, compared The Summer of Ordinary Ways to Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. And although both memoirs make something large and resonant out of the dark little dramas of domesticity, it's a comparison that does neither justice. Allison's memoir is much darker and contains not a single false note. Helget's book is both funnier and more lyrical--sometimes too lyrical. She occasionally lingers like a voyeur over scenes of mayhem and blood, as when her father gores the recalcitrant milk cow with a pitchfork: "[The blood] soaked around the holes, then spread, staining Big Jenny's white fur first red and then dirty orange, like food coloring stretching in water. Deep in the middle, lighter on the periphery.... She still stood in a striped coat of blood like a strange hybrid of pansies Mom planted once, dark and white and red."
Here we see the more-is-less principle in action. One or the other image would probably suffice.
But this is a mild objection, and perhaps oversensitive. For the most part Helget resists melodrama and saccharine sentimentality. She has taken material heretofore owned by Garrison Keillor--rural life in Minnesota, with its ethnic oddity and quietly fierce religion--and delivered it without the mediating voice of satire. The result is a startling portrait of life on the farm in all its weirdness, and more affecting for being true.
Of course, fidelity to the truth can have its hazards. "Writers are always selling people out," Didion once wrote, and it's intriguing to wonder what the Helget family makes of their portrayal. If this is an example of selling people out, it's as sensitive as it can be done, and I'm sure as hell buying.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.