In her writing studio, tucked high inside her home on Lake Minnetonka, Margaret Wurtele shows off her bookshelf the way a girl might show off a precious doll collection. “Oh, this was huge for me,” she gushes, petting the spine of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. She fawns over Christian scholar C.S. Lewis and the twin knights of nihilism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
Now, Wurtele can add her own novel to the shelf. The Golden Hour (NAL Trade, $15), her first work of fiction, comes out this month. Set in Nazi-occupied Italy, it tells of a 17-year-old Catholic girl who is asked to hide a Jewish freedom fighter. Of course, the two fall in love, and the affair triggers an emotional upheaval. For Wurtele, writing the novel was a kind of closure to her long fascination with what she calls “this religion thing.”
Wurtele’s childhood was highly cultured—her father, Philip Von Blon, was a founder of the Guthrie Theater. Her home was also, she says, “completely unreligious.” Yet, in her thirties, she found Iyengar yoga (“Way before it was cool,” she says) and, in her forties, earned a master’s degree in liberal studies, writing about meaning and purpose. Then, in 1995, her 22-year-old son died while mountain-climbing . The tragedy, paired with her spiritual awakening, made rich philosophical fodder for a pair of soul-searching memoirs, Taking Root in 1998 and Touching the Edge in 2002.
Now in her sixties, Wurtele has emerged as a woman of excitable intellect, sitting on the boards of the Minnesota Opera, the Loft Literary Center, and the Guthrie (where she’s a lifetime board member). She’s replaced yoga with Pilates. And four months of every year—guess which ones—she and her husband, Angus, relax in Napa Valley, where they have a winery.
Wurtele still identifies as a Christian, but she does so cautiously. “I had to learn to think of religion in terms of myth and poetry—as something that’s not literal,” she says. She whispers slyly, “I’m not an evangelist, you know.”
FIVE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM MARGARET WURTELE
1. For Valentine’s Day, a 2009 bottle of “Amore” from Terra Valentine, the Napa Valley winery owned by Wurtele.
2. The online book-writing class taught by Mary Carroll Moore at the Loft Literary Center.
3. The Marriage Plot, Geoffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel about coming of age and wrestling with religion.
4. Watch Osmo Vänskä conduct the Minnesota Orchestra—a spiritual experience in Wurtele’s opinion.
5. The bouillabaisse at Sea Change, followed by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (performed at the Guthrie all month).