Karen Babine, a 1997 Nevis High School graduate, has earned her second Minnesota Book Award.
“All the Wild Hungers,” published by Milkweed Editions in 2019, won in the memoir and creative fiction category.
Organized by The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, the Minnesota Book Awards is an annual celebration of the state’s best books.
When her mother, Barb, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Karen began cooking for her. In “All the Wild Hungers,” she ponders the intimate connections between food, family and illness.
A vegetarian, Karen wondered, “Feed a fever, starve a cold, but what do we do for cancer?”
As she baked cookies with her small niece and nephew, she asked, “How does a family create its own food culture across generations?”
“My sister announced she was pregnant at the same time Mom was diagnosed, so we were working hard to manage the fear over her cancer – which was an incredibly rare, childhood cancer that only shows up in kids under the age of 10 – while we were anticipating a new addition to the family,” Karen recalled.
Barb taught fourth grade in Osage and Park Rapids for 15 years. Before teaching in Osage, she would substitute teach in Nevis and Park Rapids, often for music classes.
As for the writing process, Karen did “morning pages” at the dining room table in the early morning.
“It wasn’t particularly difficult to write in that moment simply because she was declared cancer free after her surgery and her chemotherapy was just to keep it from coming back, which it did,” Karen said. “Because I was writing in the moment, I was able to focus on what I’d cooked for her the day before, the new cast iron I’d thrifted, the new things I was trying to cook, the funny things my niece and nephew had done, research that helped me understand what was going on. Even the end of the book remained hopeful because she was still cancer free. We knew by the time the book came out, of course, that wasn’t the case, but the book ends in a hopeful place.”
Barb passed away Nov. 1, 2018 in New Hope, Minn.
In an interview with Friends of the St. Paul Library, Karen said she feels honored to be a Minnesota Book Award finalist. “Minnesota has such a rich literary history that it’s thrilling simply to be in the same room with writers I admire so much,” she said.
Karen told the Enterprise this particular win “was incredibly bittersweet, that’s for sure. And a little weird because the ceremony was virtual and I was alone in my living room in Chattanooga, with the ceremony on my television, and a group Facetime with my family on my computer, texts flying with friends on my iPad. I’m so glad Mom got to see the galleys of the book, but she passed away before it was published. I wish she could have seen it published and I wish she could have been there with us at the ceremony. Last time, we were able to postpone her chemo a week so she could go to the Minnesota Book Awards, and she was radiant in her burgundy dress, her incredible smile, so I remain incredibly grateful we were able to make those memories.”
Babine moved to Chattanooga a year ago to join the English department at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
“The pandemic has made getting to know my new home more challenging, but there’s so much to explore here, so many interesting things to write about. Chattanooga is an incredibly interesting place, especially for one who loves history,” she said.
In her first book, “Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life,” Karen wrote about places and experiences familiar to Hubbard County residents in a series of personal essays. The memoir won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for creative nonfiction. It was also a finalist for the Midwest Book Award and for the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.
Her work has appeared widely, from “Slag Glass City” to “River Teeth” to “Fugue, Weber: The Contemporary West,” “Sycamore Review” and more. "Deadwood" won the Martin O. Lewis Prize in 2007. Her writing has been selected twice as a “notable” in Best American Essays.
Karen is also the founder and editor of “Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies,” whose goal is to publish the best nonfiction scholarship and pedagogy across disciplines.