Helget’s tale of frontier life in the territory of Minnesota gives stark meaning to the term “woebegone.”
The novel interweaves the stories of several denizens of Stillwater, Minn., as the town is transformed from wilderness outpost to lumber empire. We know from the beginning how wily Beaver Jean, a fur trapper and trader, meets his end—from an ax wielded by his own daughter. The events leading up to this date with destiny are recounted in an extended flashback which comprises the novel. Lydian, Beaver Jean’s runaway wife, arrives at the orphanage run by Mother St. John, a Catholic nun, and the peripatetic priest Father Paul. There, Lydian gives birth to twins, a boy, Clement, and girl, Angel. After their mother escapes to Mexico, Angel is adopted by a wealthy couple, the Hatterbys, who live nearby, while Clement becomes the surrogate son of Mother St. John’s assistant, Big Waters, a Native American exiled by her tribe. Soon after the twins are born, a fugitive slave, Eliza, arrives at the orphanage with her young son, Davis. Ailing from consumption, Eliza has run away from her masters while they were traveling in the North, and Beaver Jean, who’s seeking other sidelines now that beaver hats are no longer fashionable menswear, is on her trail, hoping to collect a bounty. However, he’s slowed considerably by a decrepit nag and his remaining two wives. Father Paul spirits Eliza and Davis to a house of ill repute (also a stop on the Underground Railroad), where Eliza dies. Davis is adopted by a prostitute, Daisy, who was ruined after being jilted by her Southern beau. Her most frequent client is Mr. Hatterby, whose wife is slowly poisoning Angel to keep her—and her husband—close to home. But when Clement and Angel reconnect, their fierce bond will explode everyone’s best laid schemes.
Although the dialects occasionally distract, and too many colorful characters clamor for attention, this novel effectively dramatizes the seismic sociological shifts that shaped the American Midwest.