Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Kathy Nelson: A Novel Life

Minneapolis Lutheran writes sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Kathy Nelson has lived a “novel” life and her friends always told her, “You
should write a book.” Besides marrying a Kuwaiti, Nelson, a Longfellow
(Minne- apolis) resident, has lived in her husband’s country. After the birth
of their child — a boy with Down syndrome — she started a school in Kuwait
for children with disabilities.
But it wasn’t until 1995, while watching the “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries
on PBS, that the muse stirred. By then, Nelson was back in Minneapolis and
working as an electrical contractor. “I never dreamed of becoming a writer,
but I got obsessed with Jane Austen,” laughed the 58-year-old. “I was trying
to capture her tone, language, and wit. When I get obsessed with people, I
want to know how they tick.”
That fascination turned into many late nights. “I wrote each evening after 10
when I’d finished everything around the house,” she said. When her efforts
yielded a 3-inch wide manuscript, Nelson thought she might have a book on
her hands, and, in 2006, Pemberley Manor, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice,
was published. Nelson’s first novel received good reviews and was nominated
for a Regency Award for “Best New Fiction.” (The Regency Awards are
sponsored by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.) “I didn’t win,” she laughed.
“But I got a trip to England (in May 2008) and a free dinner! And it was great,
being where Jane Austen had once lived.”
Nelson, a Minneapolis native, grew up in the Lutheran church. She said,
“When I was in high school, the older members were dying, and the
neighborhood began changing. There was an eventual split in the church
between those wanting to embrace the neighborhood and those wanting
things to stay as they were.” Disillusioned, Nelson temporarily left the
Lutheran church. “I thought ‘This is for the birds!’ If we can’t get along in one
building with a similar heritage, then what are we about?” she asked herself.
By the late 1960s, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota. “When I was at
the U, I went to the Newman Center. I liked that group’s activism.” Majoring
in Spanish, Nelson studied other languages, including Russian and Arabic. “I
also started hanging out with the international students. In the late ‘60s,
Minnesota was still pretty insular, so these friendships also provided an
education. I was surrounded by people who were so different — from what
they ate to how they talked and thought about life. I was fascinated!” One
student in particular, a Kuwaiti named Abdullah, caught her eye. They’ve
been married for more than 30 years. Early in their marriage, they traveled
between Kuwait and Minnesota.
“When our son, Nayef, was born with Down syndrome, we returned to
Minnesota. I needed my family around me and needed to learn what Down
syndrome had to offer us.” When Nayef was three, they returned to Kuwait.
“At that time, Kuwait was in a different place as far as people with disabilities
were concerned,” she said. “They took excellent care of people but didn’t
expect too much from them. We couldn’t find a ‘regular’ school that would
take him. They had ‘Down syndrome’ school, but that’s not his whole world;
that doesn’t define him. He needed to be with other children.”
She then helped start a school for children with disabilities. “I worked with a
Montessori teacher from Sweden, the wife of the then British Ambassador,
and an American with an autistic child, among others. We all came together
and it was like gathering gems,” she laughed. “The kids ended up with good
verbal skills and learned to read and write.” In 1989, the family left Kuwait,
just before Iraq invaded the country. Once they were settled in Minneapolis,
Nelson enrolled Nayef, who was six, at Dowling School. She said, “This was
the best school in the city for him. They knew what he needed before I asked
for it.”
Nayef was also instrumental in her return to the Lutheran church. “He started
going to Latch Key at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, when
he was in first grade, and he loved the church — it felt right to him. Nayef is a
beacon and wherever he feels at home someplace, it’s usually right, so I
followed him. Nayef was confirmed and there was no question that he was a
part of the congregation.
When Holy Trinity offered their new member class, he and I attended the
sessions together. I remember talking with Ron Johnson (then pastor) who
said that he thought Christianity should be about inclusion. Well, I’ve been
working the ‘inclusion angle’ since Nayef was born, so this was perfect.”
At Holy Trinity, Nelson found a unique, inspiring community, “It’s a
congregation full of active, hardworking people who believe they can make a
difference in the world. The people have contributed so much to my life. This
church encompasses the essence of Christianity: God is love and think of all
of the things that you can do with love! This is a group of people who have
unconditional love for one another — not to say we don’t get crabby
sometimes, but the essence is ‘I accept you whatever your path is!’”
Nelson and her husband have moved Nayef into his own apartment. Nayef,
who is 24, is working at Best Buy’s warehouse and planning to get married.
“He fell in love with a young woman when they were both in middle school
and there are still a lot of details to work out ,” she said. “Having him live on
his own is something we’re learning about daily: How much freedom is too
much? How much responsibility should he have? He’s cutting edge in the
world of Down syndrome. Previously, people were never given freedom to
make any mistakes — they were living in small group settings or in hospitals.
They were not taught to read — nobody thought they could read, but many
Nelson is also working on a novel based on a saga of three generations of a
Longfellow neighborhood family. “I think my friends are grateful that I’m
finally writing about something closer to home!” she said. “But things lead me
— that’s my path — they take hold of me and I can’t let go until I see them
through. So whatever gets ahold of me — that’s what I’ll be working on.”