There appear to be two Mississippis flowing through the heart of the United States one that is
measured in miles, and the other in pages. The first is a river you can dip your toe in, while the second
prefers to engage the imagination of its visitors. It's hard to say which has been more important to the
development of our country, especially if you've had the good fortune to visit and explore both.
Horns and Wrinkles is a middle-grade novel that takes place along the latter type of river a
spellbound stretch of river. When young Claire's least favorite cousin sprouts a rhinoceros horn,
the adventure sets sail, and the story that unfolds is as twisty and unpredictable as the Mississippi itself.
An unusual cast of characters some human, some not adds pepper to the pot in this nimble, sharp, funny story.
For those young readers living along today's Mississippi, Horns and Wrinkles will jump-start a sense of
wonder over the marvels in their own backyard, and perhaps coax a story or two out of their parents or
grandparents about their days on the river. And for those who live beyond the Mississippi's banks,
Joseph Helgerson's book will carry them down the waters of a magical world, with enchantment so vivid it
feels as though the river is just a stone's throw away.
During the Mississippi River flood of '51, Joseph Helgerson, then age one, had to be evacuated by boat
from his home. From that rescue, it was pretty much a straight shot to the writing of Horns and Wrinkles.
Joseph Helgerson grew up in the river town of Winona, Minnesota, fishing the sloughs, camping the
sandbars, and hiking the bluffs. He eventually swam upstream far enough to reach the University of
Minnesota, where campus is split in half by the Mississippi and where he received a degree in
American studies. After a few dry years out West, he's returned to Minnesota, where he can frequently be
found admiring the fall of Saint Anthony and other rivery sights, sounds, and smells. He'd like to take this
opportunity to thank Mr. Samuel Clemens for the use of his river.
A Conversation with Joseph Helgerson
Growing up along such a big and storied river must have been a lot of fun for you.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood experiences on the Mississippi?
The town where I grew up (Winona, Minnesota) was built on a huge sandbar, so the Mississippi was never far
away, which made it a dangerous place for sleepwalkers. Summers were for exploring sloughs and backwaters
with friends fishing, lashing rafts together, occasionally filling a corncob pipe with enough rabbit tobacco
to turn you a lovely shade of green. On weekends my family headed for the sandbars in a succession of
different boats, my favorite being a pontoon that my dad and his cronies built from scratch in our driveway.
I can still see the sparks cascading to the ground as they welded barrels together in the gathering darkness.
The fact that we'd made the boat ourselves and then navigated it down Crooked Slough and even across the
treacherous main channel thrilled me like few things in life. Barge horns in the night, sweet bloom of
algae on the morning breeze, old duffers at the levee warning about whirlpools strong enough to suck you
under looking back on it now, I don't know how I ever found time to grow up. Maybe I didn't.
Were you ever bullied as a child, either by siblings, cousins, or . . . trolls?
There was a troll or two in my family who made it hot for me. Fortunately, they lived out of state and only
showed up about once a year. Still . . . I can remember running for my life.
River trolls use rock and rock trolls use river . . . screen doors used to sift for stars . . . exchanging
stars for crickets. Your imagination is on display with each clever plot and the character development
in Horns and Wrinkles. Are all the creative details and ideas part of traditional river lore
or your own creation?
A little of both. River trolls? There were plenty of large scaley creatures mucking about the
river: snapping turtles that never let go; gar fish attracted to blood; catfish bigger than men or
so the stories went. Fishermen sometimes tacked the heads of the biggest catfish to tree trunks by
boat landings. Those heads were huge! Bigger than a man's and whiskered and not exactly fishlike if you
took a close look. Rock trolls? A limestone quarry outside of town was always setting off explosions that
seemed to come from deep in the earth and echoed up and down the river. It was hard to believe those blasts
were always man-made, especially if you thought one had just woken you up in the middle of the night.
You couldn't have dreamed it, could you? Cave crickets? The area around Winona is riddled with caves like
Devil's Cave, which was a few blocks away from my house. Nasty, dark, damp places full of crickets you
couldn't trust. Sifting for stars? Sandbars always have an assortment of unexplainable small round holes,
and after watching shooting stars while camping on the river, the answer to what had bored into the sand
seemed obvious. Sifting seemed the best way to find them.
Each character from the humans, to the trolls, to the magical old lady in the boat is so richly developed.
Even the "bad guys" are likeable (in a mischievous sort of way)! Did you enjoy rendering one character the
most, or find yourself attached to one personality more than the others?
I've two favorite characters. First Bodacious Deepthink for her determination to dig her way
to the moon. Something tells me that she'll make it. Second, Jim Dandy's father, Double-knot,
for admitting his failures and standing up to Bodacious.
What made you choose rhinos, as opposed to some other creature or animal, to be a bully's demise?
Reading Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach sold me on rhinos. As you may recall, in
that story James Henry Trotter's parents were eaten by a rhinoceros. After that, I knew that I had
to have one of them in a story of mine, too. Of course it helped that rhinos are such huge, powerful,
nearsighted, pointy-headed creatures all classic attributes for a bully.
While it's clear that much of the inspiration from the book came from your own life and your familiarity
with the Mississippi, do you find yourself looking to any other writers and books for ideas or guidance?
There are plenty of writers for me to thank. The top of the heap would include, as you may
have guessed, Roald Dahl, for his leaps of imagination, and Mark Twain, for stretching the river
until it was long enough to accommodate everyone's stories.
And, finally, what's next? Do you have any more delightful adventures swimming around in your head?
The story currently dog-paddling around between my ears is set in Blue Wing and concerns a
foundling named Choo who visits an apple orchard that may have been planted by Johnny Appleseed.
I'm not sure if I believe that last bit or not.