Rural reality memoir hits home

Minnesota author thrilled at her anything but “ordinary’ debut

Erin Adler

Critics’ reaction to Nicole Lea Helget’s depiction of southern Minnesota farm life is probably predictable, considering how few Americans have grown up on a farm.

In describing her memoir “The Summer of Ordinary Ways,” the reviewers repeatedly employ such adjectives as “gritty” and “gothic.”

Many reviews also mention a bloody scene in which Helget’s father kills a lactating mother cow with a pitchfork and a stint when he shoots a litter of puppies in the barn, one after the other.

In a recent interview, though, first-time author Helget, 29, said she did not include such experiences in her memoir expecting such a reaction ” in fact, she still doesn’t see them that way.

“I don’t personally think there is anything gothic or nightmarish about my book. I’ve heard other stories similar to mine, so (it) doesn’t seem all that odd to me,” she said.

The adjectives don’t seem to faze Helget, who added that “all readers bring their own biases to books. That is to be expected.”

But “The Summer of Ordinary Ways” isn’t all about animal husbandry turned violent. Mostly, it’s about growing up in a

family that, while not physically abusive, left the author wanting more. It’s about the scars we all carry, and the everyday realities that create ” and heal ” those scars.

The brief book is told in nonsequential chapters or vignettes that are supposed to “stand alone” as individual pieces, as well as play a part in the larger text, she said. Chapters often begin with a recipe, or even a jump-roping rhyme, adding to the feeling that, as a reader, one is snooping through the pages of an actual family’s history.

Narrator Nicole, or “Colie” as she is called by her sisters, moves from 7 years old to 12, and then back to 9. She has five younger sisters, a beautiful but depressed mother and a father she describes as alternately jealous, angry and kind.

By the book’s end, her family has separated into several camps, some supportive of and others upset by Nicole’s divorce. The same factions exist today in her family, she said.

“Some members of my family are angry; some are very supportive and encouraging. But the book hasn’t changed our family dynamics at all,” she said. “I haven’t exposed anything that hasn’t been unearthed in some way before.”

Because her family’s “secrets” have been “unearthed” before, though, doesn’t make talking about the intimate details of her life much easier. Helget said she is “an intensely private person” and “tends to be highly introverted as well.” She described talking and writing about certain aspects of her writing as “always uncomfortable.”

So why did she write a memoir, a genre that is by its nature very personal?

“I didn’t write a memoir because I thought my life was particularly interesting. I wrote (it) because I had just started writing, and my life was all I really knew to write,” she said.

Her memoir has generated praise from People magazine and City Pages, among many others. An early short story version of the first chapter won a contest at the Loft, and since then, Helget has sold her upcoming novel, “The Turtle Catcher,” to publisher Houghton Mifflin. A producer in Los Angeles is interested in the movie rights, she said.

Helget said it is a “pleasant surprise” that her book “is selling so well and might even turn a profit.”

Whether one considers “The Summer of Ordinary Ways” “nightmarish” or simply real, Helget’s success makes for an intriguing epilogue to her life story.